What begins as an intrusive subway encounter quickly deepens into a riveting, all-too-relevant microcosm of intractable racial tensions in Rogue Machine’s superb West Coast premiere of “Dutch Masters” at the Met Theatre.
Playwright Greg Keller set this taut, suspenseful two-hander in 1992, amid the unmet promises and polarizing racial violence that ended the one-term administration of New York Mayor David Dinkins. Just how little the socio-economic divide has changed in the decades since is apparent in the tense meeting between two kids in their late teens: Eric (Corey Dorris), a loud, pushy, self-styled black gangsta, and Steve (Josh Zuckerman), a sheltered white boy from the Bronx who tries in vain to ignore and then deflect Eric’s posturing, taunts and unexpected overture of friendship.
Keller’s play is actually more classically constructed than its edgy, slang-infused opening might suggest. Eric’s world is not as alien as he first leads Steve to believe, but the ingeniously plotted twists revealing their deeper connection pose challenges that could easily strain credibility in a less accomplished staging. For starters, we need to believe that Steve would get off the train in Harlem to smoke some weed with this volatile stranger he’s only just met. Zuckerman does an admirable job of selling this reckless choice as a combination of Steve’s white guilt, bravado and the lure of venturing outside his middle-class comfort zone.
The heavy lifting, however, falls to Dorris, whose astonishing performance as Eric continually ricochets among intimidating menace, disarming humor and affable charisma without missing a beat. This is a gifted young actor with remarkable range.
Director Guillermo Cienfuegos’ pacing builds tension with masterful assurance, while David Mauer’s jaw-dropping set transformations effortlessly segue from graffiti-laced subway car to urban streets to an intricately detailed interior for the emotional steamroller finale. The production makes a fine companion piece to Rogue Machine’s “Honky,” this season’s earlier race-themed triumph.
The play’s title is both literal and richly symbolic in referencing the brand of cigar Eric fashions into a marijuana blunt to seal their friendship — for him, the Dutch Masters represent the imperial slave traders who colonized New York, while to art student Steve they depict the great painters of the Renaissance. Here in a nutshell are two cultures separated by a common language, and attempts at bridging that divide sadly continue to focus more on diplomatic vocabulary than true understanding.
Where: Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 3.
Info: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
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