The Review: Partial Comfort Production’s Dutch Masters
This is one of those plays that dares you to ask yourself some difficult questions; “What would I do in that situation?” is just the first of many that force my liberalism to jump hoops in my brain. At least that was the dilemma that I found myself in during Greg Keller’s masterful Dutch Masters, now being performed quite succinctly at the Wild Project, NYC. The questions that color the dynamic as clearly and confidently directed by the very fine film actor, André Holland (‘Moonlight’), is how much does racism and/or privilege play in how you would view this scenario. Would the whole provocative interaction be ripped of its tense dynamic if both these two young men in this suspense-filled drama were of the same background and/or race? Or how would it differ if their gender or sexuality was altered or reversed? Would it change the increasing level of anxiety that starts to float up if the race card was reversed? Or maybe if one or the other character was hispanic? Or Asian? I would garner a pretty sizable wager that it most definitely would change our reactions if we were truly being honest and without shame. But shame is the thing that takes this well constructed play into something far more uncomfortable, intense, and revelatory, poking at our conceptions of self and demeanor, daring us to admit the complications that reside within our own mind. As written, we can’t help but find ourselves stuck in this uncomfortable debate, contemplating internally about prejudice and systematic generalizations that rage inside our heads. We wonder; should we listen to the adrenaline rush that is urging us to run and escape, or should we try to quiet ourselves down, shaming ourself for so quickly being en guard, and accept the hand of friendship being offered by a stranger on a subway car. And what does this perplexing argument that is running through our heads say about our vision of the world we live in, and how we see and live within it?
Steve, strongly played by Jake Horowitz (Barrow Street’s Our Town) is that young white man, boyish and bro-ish, sitting on a subway, minding his own business reading a book for pleasure on a summer afternoon in New York City, 1992. He is the epitome of the liberal open-minded soul that many of us think we are like, making assumptions of ourselves, our attitudes, and how we view the people that surround us. Out of nowhere, another young man, Eric, portrayed by Ian Duff (Kitchen Theatre’s I and You), a tall athletic black man, strikes up a conversation, somewhat aggressively, fueling a nervousness and discomfort we are bait ashamed to admit. But maybe it is registered that way only because, as a New Yorker, friendliness in public from one stranger to another, is suspect. Our initial reaction is to wonder, what does this person want from him, and should he be on the alert? Race, of course, is the defining quality that Keller (Cherry Lane’s The Young Left) is trying to project out for us to do battle with. It’s automatically awkward, as it would be if anyone pushed their way into our personal space in such a confined public environment. It is of concern, but as we watch Steve grapple with his nervousness and discomfort, we wonder about our own, and can’t help but question its source.
Expertly creating the battleground for conflict, with an impeccably smart set by Jason Simms (Public’s Urge for Going), defining costumes by Ntokozo Kunene (Wild Goose Dreams), expert lighting by Xavier Pierce (Mint’s Yours Unfaithfully), and a perfect sound design by Daniel Kruger (Broadway’s Marvin’s Room), the push and the shove that escalates in ways we are surprised by, resonate solidly and profoundly. Expertly played by these two fine actors, they talk, with great discomfort and suspicion, about books, summer school, weed, girls, and plans for the afternoon. The connection between the two ricochet around, giving us a great deal to play with in terms of what is going on inside their heads. We see the interaction through Steve’s confused and alert head, but it’s Eric’s hand, we imagine, that will present itself as the train keeps rolling along, and it does, guided by Keller’s solid and authentic writing style, with a professional purposefulness that is spell-bounding. But one has to wonder, might this trip just be the very personal way I am able to take in the play? I was completely engrossed in the drama, tense and on edge, but do all of my own particulars determine how I react and try to make sense of the action and interactions within? It’s a compelling question, and one I’d love to know more about from all walks of life.
As the strings that connect these two become more and more clear, the need, fear, guilt, and hope that lies somewhere in between them shifts and alters with each revelation. Privilege and envy begin to show their more difficult and damaged sides. To say more about the drama is to do the play an injustice, as it is the escalation and growing interaction that swirls around the conflicting emotional needs that the suspenseful play lives and breathes. The compelling metaphor that the title, Dutch Masters, plays with neatly and casually, tells its own tale, although one I’m not sure is as telling to the story as it is just as a unique observation. Dutch Masters, to Eric, as he studies the name and logo on a package of dark cigars used to roll and smoke some weed, seem to be referring to the nationality of the founding fathers of New York City, the masters that created industry and commerce, but whose title also labels them as slave owners. A Dutch dynamic of power, ingenuity, and suppression that is both impressive and disconcerting to the young black man who has just bought their product. Steve, on the other hand, suggests that the name is referring more to a band of painters, such as Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69). It suggests a whole world of privilege, knowledge, and imbalances that exist between the two. The interaction is tense with this conflict of viewpoints, but also hilariously well-played. Its an invitation for us to look at all the prejudices and discomfort that we project onto Eric’s character and motivations, and the excuses we align to vindicate Steve. And what a surprise this play has in store. The ride on this D train is strong and swift, and the stops made incredibly intense, with Dutch Masters leading us and one nervous guilt-ridden kid to a place that none of us saw coming. And so glad we have didn’t hop off earlier onto safer and less complex platforms.