A classic setup—Hitchcock called it Strangers On A Train—is given an excitingly edgy contemporary spin in Greg Keller’s edge-of-your-seat two-hander Dutch Masters, a Rogue Machine Theatre West Coast Premiere that will keep you guessing throughout its riveting seventy-five minutes, then have you talking about what you’ve seen long after its powerful final fadeout.
The strangers aboard the D Train headed north from Midtown Manhattan to the Bronx are Eric (Corey Dorris) and Steve (Josh Zuckerman), and if Steve is more than a bit disconcerted when Eric strikes up conversation with a casual “Whassup,” it’s perhaps not surprising given that the former is a wimpy pasty-faced white teenager and the latter a tough-talking black kid who’s just been bragging about a street fight that left its victim with “free tatt” footprint on his forehead.
With Eric insistent on small talk (“You read that for school?” “Where you goin’?” “How you gonna go to class but you ain’t in school?”), Steve does his best to maintain a polite distance, inventing pretexts to avoid further shit-shooting, excuses Eric doesn’t buy. (“You had class, you goin’ home, you meetin’ a girl, get ya story straight.”)
And every time Eric appears to be deboarding the train, he freaks Steve out by jumping back on at the last second. Is he taunting the stranger he’s just met, or is this Eric’s “I’m fuckin’ witchoo man” way of bonding with someone he’d rather get high with than on his own?
Eventually, the mismatched pair do alight from the train and head on over to a local park to get lit. (The play’s title comes from the Dutch Masters cigar Eric uses as rolling paper.) And from then on, your guess will likely be as good as mine was.
Suffice it to say that whatever you think might happen probably won’t match your guess, and not just once but pretty much all the way up to Dutch Masters’ emotional fade to black.
Nail-biting suspense, Keller’s play has it in spades, the potential for danger seemingly never far from the surface, though how much of this comes from racial stereotypes is just one of many topics likely to spark post-show discussion.
Still, it’s entirely possible to imagine Dutch Masters transposed with equal impact to the London tube with a posh “public school” Steve being chatted up by a rough, tough “council estate” Eric of the same race, the reasons for which I’ll leave it to you to discover.
If ever there were a play you could end up wanting to see more than once, Dutch Masters is that play. Simply knowing what one of the characters knows (but we don’t until near the end) is likely to make for an entirely new experience—and a far more emotional one—the second time around.
Still, even if you have time to see Dutch Masters just once, do it.
Do it for Keller’s razor-sharp writing. Do it for Guillermo Cienfuegos’s electric direction. Do it for David A. Mauer’s astonishing scenic design. Do it for sound designer Christopher Moscatiello’s tension-building mix of urban ambient noise and rap. Do it for Ric Zimmerman’s dramatic lighting, for Christine Cover Ferro’s character-defining costumes, and for Dan Cole’s plot-twist-vital props.
Do it for the winning Zuckerman’s decent, defenseless, privileged, panicky Steve and most of all do it for Dorris’s frightening, volatile, rage-filled, wounded, heart-breaking Eric, a star turn portending big things ahead for the recent Juilliard grad.
Dutch Masters is produced by John Perrin Flynn. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman. Ramón Valdez is stage manager and Taylor Anne Cullen is assistant stage manager. Amanda Mauer is production manager. David A. Mauer is technical director.
In its examination of race in today’s America, It’s hard to imagine a better follow-up to Rogue Machine’s recent Honky than Dutch Masters. This is one heart-breaking, gut-punching wow of a show.
Rogue Machine @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood.
September 5, 2016
Photos: John Perrin Flynn