Written by Greg Keller
Directed by Andre Holland

In 1992, place names like “Brooklyn” and “Bronx” still had a potent ring to them. Midtown Manhattan may have been dominated by the yuppie class, but in the lawless Outer Boroughs, serviced by graffiti-ridden letter trains, different rules applied. In decades that followed, broken windows policing, terrorist attacks, gentrification-on-steroids and maverick mayors, changed the face of the city. Taking a look back at the Dinkins era, Greg Keller’s seriocomic two hander serves as a reminder of the volatile vibe that used to define New York, and of the tensions, hopes and inequalities that still simmer beneath the city’s ever-glossier surface.

While riding a northbound D train, two young men meet, seemingly at random. Clean-cut, Caucasian Steve (Jake Horowitz), is on his way home to Riverdale when Eric (Ian Duff), a black man about the same age, plants himself in the adjacent seat and starts talking. Naturally, Steve doesn’t want to appear racist or unhip, but he has the true New Yorker’s reluctance to get mixed up in some stranger’s life- especially one who purports to be a stickup artist. A shrewd manipulator, Eric knows what buttons to push, and Steve finds himself sharing a blunt with his new friend in some unfamiliar section of the Bronx. The eponymous Dutch Masters cigars provide convenient holders for the dope Eric buys on the corner. And the image on the package, of bearded Flemish tradesmen in “ill” buckled hats prompts a wry discourse on the Dutch mafia that used to control New Amsterdam, along with a host of other anecdotes and observations. Eric and Steve seem to be growing closer, especially as they discover a share a passion for rap music and basketball. Their budding friendship barely gets a flourish before Steve, unused to drugs this strong, loses consciousness. He comes to in Eric’s place, a place to which he’s never been yet which, somehow, contains familiar objects. Their meeting, it appears, was anything but accidental. A common past binds them together, and their journey toward a painful but necessary reckoning has just begun.

Unlike most two-person shows, Keller’s script travels spatially as well as psychologically, keeping the audience guessing as to where and Steve and Eric’s adventure will end. The dialogue, for the most part, flows naturally, and when the big reveal happens it feels organic to the story. On a few occasions, the characters sound like mouthpieces for yet another debate on cultural appropriation (“You took my music. The way I walk. The way I talk”, complains Eric, rationalizing his own theft of material objects as minor by comparison). But for the most of DUTCH MASTERS steers clear of clichés, preferring instead to focus on the intersection of the personal and political. And therein lies the plays power. We’re rooting for these guys to, if not become friends, at least find common ground. But at every turn, the social baggage they carry, the insecurity with which the travel through a dangerous world, have the potential to widen the gulf between them.

Director Andre Holland, himself an actor of uncompromising authenticity, draws vulnerable, purely spontaneous performances from Duff and Horowitz. The design style, as befits the story, is understated, with Ntokozo Kunene’s costumes and Xavier Pierce’s lighting evoking a sense of time and place without distracting from the actors’ chemistry. Significantly, Jason Simms’ scenic design goes from suggested to specific once we get to Eric’s apartment. Before Eric even says a word, we see the primness, care and taste with which his late mother adorned the place. Her presence is palpable, as if she’s watching to see whether the dreams she instilled in her son will be fulfilled – or dashed against impossible circumstances.

DUTCH MASTERS continues through April, 21, 2018 at The Wild Project 195 East 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009. Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1522555200000

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