Reviewed by Lyle Zimskind
Rogue Machine Theatre
Through October 3
Echoing the premise of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story, Greg Keller’s compelling Dutch Masters begins with one man relentlessly accosting another on a public bench. Instead of a park, though, the encounter between Eric (Corey Dorris), a young black man, and Steve (Josh Zuckerman), a white student around the same age, takes place on an uptown New York City D train in 1992.
Eric casually tells Steven that he’s there to rob people, but his get-to-know-you questions, while intrusively probing, are friendly rather than threatening. Still, Steve seems afraid to get off at his intended midtown stop, and instead continues on the train toward the upscale Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx where he lives. Soon he even agrees to go with Eric to score weed, then head off to the park with him to smoke. (At one point, Eric wonders why white people usually get off the train at 59th Street, rather than continue up to 125th and beyond. Steve gingerly suggests it’s because they have “meetings” to attend, meetings about boring “white stuff.”)
When the joint they share has burned almost all the way down, Steve passes out. By the time he wakes, Eric has brought him to yet another location, where Steve can plainly observe the contrast between Eric’s modest home and his own. And while the vibe between the two men remains tenuously amicable, Eric in fact has a momentous surprise in store — one that definitively reorients our understanding of how these two have come to know each other. At which point the show is only about half over.
Overtly about race relations in America, Dutch Masters intrigues from the start, beginning with the slow smolder of Eric and Steve’s initial encounter, up to and through the pivotal revelation that (maybe) changes everything. Questions linger about why Eric has taken such a strong interest in Steve and cajoled him into an impromptu uptown adventure — and why Steve, who apparently has plenty of other plans for the afternoon and evening, chooses to go along with him. All along, Keller skillfully teases our expectations about how this apparent manipulation will turn out.
Then, once past the big reveal, our interest is reset for the development of another, entirely re-contextualized relationship between the two men. This kind of plot device (as any frequent theater or moviegoer may attest) often seems like cheating and can engender one’s disappointment at being set up to anticipate a denouement that never arrives. Here, though, director Guillermo Cienfuegos effects a jarring but cohesive transition between the play’s two dramatic sections, so how we respond in the first half of the play impacts our judgment of what transpires after its crucial turning point. The dynamic modulations inlaid by this director are so consistently enthralling that we can hardly even blink.
The performers, too, are charismatic and invest us in their respective agendas, both obvious and hidden. Dorris’s performance, in what is undoubtedly the more powerful role, is essentially a tour de force. Even as we observe him toying with Steve, we sense a motivation that we (and Steve) are unequipped to divine until it bursts through the exterior insouciance that Eric has probably spent his whole life constructing. As Steve, Zuckerman pulls off the difficult assignment of reacting to Eric’s enigmatically persistent invitation into his world, without ever lapsing into facile attitudes of either condescension or guilt.
Scenic designer and technical director David A. Mauer and his team nicely evoke the graffiti-covered New York subway milieu of the early ‘90s. Later in the production, they deliver what is frankly one of the most impressive scene changes I’ve ever witnessed in a theater space of any magnitude.
Without expressly articulating the concept of “privilege,” Keller’s play provides a devastating illustration of how America’s racial and class divides are seared into the consciousness of those whose families have had to struggle, while never even grazing the mindsets of their more fortunate counterparts. Eric and Steve, it turns out, have more in common than Steve could ever guess, Yet Eric has been invisible to Steve for years, right until up to the moment when they meet.
You might want to check for yourself whether any of the assumptions you cultivate as you watch the first part of the play are brought to judgment by what you learn from, or see in, Eric and Steve by the time it’s all over.
MET Theatre, 1089 Oxford Avenue, East Hollywood. Sat. and Mon., 8:30 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through October 3. roguemachinetheatre.com/show-info/dutch-masters. Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission.