Athol Fugard’s Master Harold…and the Boys is a one-scene distillation of how institutionalized hatred—South African apartheid, in this case—can perpetuate itself as an omnipresent receptacle for an omnipresent substance: pain. The most openly autobiographical of Fugard’s plays shows us, over the course of a languid, rainy afternoon 60 years ago, schoolboy Hally’s close friendship with Sam, the black man roughly a generation his senior who works at his mother’s café. One problem with Bob Barlett’s initially sluggish but ultimately successful Quotidian Theatre production is the way Ben Davis’ performance obscures the age of Hally, our stand-in for the playwright as a young man. The script puts him at 17, but Davis alternately seems both half a decade younger and older—not unlike a lot of actual 17-year-olds, admittedly. In Sam, Hally finds an adult who doesn’t treat him like a kid. In Hally, Sam finds a white kid who doesn’t treat him as a Kaffir—at least not until bad news turns him petulant and vindictive. It’s powerful stuff, once the production has balled up its fist. But it takes its time, missing opportunities for comedy in the slack-paced first half. The good news is that as Sam, Jason B. McIntosh is sensitive and soulful, resisting any slide into The Legend of Bagger Vance’s magical Negro platitudes. Comedy is tougher than tragedy, it’s often said, and this production could be an exhibit for the prosecution: When the going gets sad, the show gets good.

Quotidian Theatre Company performs at 8 p.m. (also 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday) at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. $25. (301) 816-1023.

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