updated 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

When actor Lonny Price, 23, landed the title role in Athol Fugard's prize-winning drama, Master Harold...and the Boys last April, just prior to its Broadway opening, it was a case of opportunity knocking twice. He was turned down for the part earlier, when the play debuted at Yale. But when the show shifted to New York, the original Harold had to bow out and Price was invited to audition again.

"I really went after it," he says. He cut his hair, bought contact lenses and even gave up wearing his ever-present sneakers to play Hally, the young South African white whose friendship with the two black employees in his parents' tearoom leads him to a test of humanity that, in the end, he fails. Price's work paid off. Although he had only nine days to rehearse, his portrayal was hailed as one of the season's finest. He himself has been so taken with the role that he has turned down other offers to continue in it.

Price's passion for the theater began at 3, when his parents (his father owns a car-leasing outfit in Queens, his mother is a VP in a dress-merchandising firm) took him to his first Broadway show, Oliver. He made his own debut at 8, playing a cockroach in a summer theater workshop sponsored by Lincoln Center.

A lackluster student ("the word 'geometry' makes me break out in hives"), he spent three years at New York's High School of Performing Arts (of Fame fame) and one at Juilliard before turning to acting full-time. After several off-Broadway stints, he landed the lead in the 1981 musical Merrily We Roll Along, a flop that nevertheless gave him the chance to work with his two idols, Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. But his grueling role as Hally—"an emotional roller coaster," he says—is the most significant that he has had. The Manhattan bachelor swims, dances and plays piano to help relieve the tension of eight performances a week. And after each show, he limits himself to doing "only happy things. I want to stay as far away from the theater as possible," he says. "I get enough of it onstage."

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