A review by Joshua Kahn.
Photos of Corey Dorris and Josh Zuckerman. Photos by John Perrin Flynn
From the moment the lights come up on the Bronx-bound D train, Dutch Masters promises to take us on a journey as dangerous and mercurial as its 1992 New York City setting. A chance meeting on the subway between Eric, a young, streetwise black man (Corey Dorris, absolutely kinetic) and Steve, a white college student (Josh Zuckerman), sets the scene for a night long discussion that tackles modern day race relations in an engaging, funny, gut-punch personal way.
This west coast premiere, presented by Rogue Machine Theatre and directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, starts in a familiar enough manner. The initial set-up (one stranger approaches another and gets all up in his personal space) evokes a subterranean Zoo Story, but playwright Greg Keller quickly has his characters emerge from the subway and explore the streets of the city when Eric convinces (read: intimidates) Steve into accompanying him on a late night trip to score some weed. As the men wander the streets of the city (David A. Mauer's sparse set, bolstered immeasurably by Christopher Moscatiello's lush sound design), we get to learn a bit more about our characters: Steve aspires to be an artist, and Eric (for reasons unbeknownst to us) desires to win Steve's friendship. Race and racism are touched upon, but, by and large, Mr. Keller makes the wise choice of letting those topics be subtext, focusing instead on the characters as people instead of symbols.
The real draw of this production is Mr. Dorris' portrayal of Eric. With his swagger and eye-catching Knicks hat, he feels like a transplant from an early Spike Lee joint. In his interactions with Steve, Mr. Dorris finds the humor in his menace and the menace in his humor. It's an incendiary, imposing performance, heightened by the fact that we're kept in the dark as to why exactly Eric is so drawn to Steve...which is why, when Eric's true motivations are revealed and we learn of the connection between the two men, the character loses some of his power and never quite reclaims it, despite Mr. Dorris' boundless magnetism.
This plot twist is kind of jarring at first, (and a little convenient, perhaps, after how wonderfully naturalistic Mr. Keller's writing is up until that point), but as the play carries on and we settle into this new groove, a pervasive sense of subtle heartbreak seeps in, making the play up to that point so much richer in retrospect.
Mr. Zuckeman does a fine job as the beleaguered Steve, finding many unique levels of nebbishness and inspired bits of physical comedy. He definitely has a interesting arc of his own, but the play clearly belongs to Eric. Almost by default, Steve blends into the background from time to time, at no fault of Mr. Zuckerman's.
While it'd be easy (and tempting) to reduce this play to "a play about race" and expound on how "even though it takes place in 1992, it's still very contemporary," I think Dutch Masters works even better as a deceptively incisive, oftentimes laugh out loud funny, character study of a broken man. It takes a ground-level view of privilege and appropriation, drawing back the curtain to show the harmful, human effect: the white-hot loneliness of realizing the world you grew up in has no room for you.
thru October 3, 2016
the Rogue Machine Theatre
in the MET Theatre
1089 N. Oxford Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Saturdays at 8:30PM,
Sundays at 3:00PM, and
Mondays at 8:30PM