Dutch Masters by Greg Keller. Directed by Brian Roff.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Iím playiní ya. Ya probíly right."
Christian Coulson; photo: Christy Wright
Are there never to be plays with endings any longer? In its world premiere (not counting workshop performances in NYC at LAByrinth Theater Company) Greg Kellerís one hour and ten minute play "Dutch Masters" presents a rather unique situation and, like Chekhov or Strindberg, he sets up places along the way where possible endings are indicated. In true Chekhovian style there is playtime with a gun. Later the gun figures significantly into the plot. Ultimately the plot loses its forceful way and ignores the possibilities that the gun allows for many different endings.
Other props, including a pair of trousers, provide the perfect solution, but instead the author and director have let the play lie there, playing dead as it were, without using anything definitive, decisive or even deluding to bring to a momentary conclusion the strained circumstances of the two players.
Blackout. Pause. Applause.
We applaud the actors for their excellent work in this short, intense drama. We applaud the creators for their ineffable expressions of conflicting emotions. There is much here to praise and enjoy even if the event ends without event. It just seems a shame to let so many fine classic clues go to waste, especially when so many improbables have been played out and blithely accepted by most of the viewers.
Eric, a young black man discovers Steve, a young white man on the uptown subway in New York. He accosts Steve, draws him into an unwanted and uneasy relationship and finally reveals secrets, including the hidden gun, that jar Steveís world beyond the normal scope of things. If some of these seem improbable and unlikely, well, they are. Still, New York is not like other places and in the city of 8 million subway riders things like the events in this play could well take place. In Ericís apartment shocking revelations about their long-standing relationship come to the fore. Some things that cannot happen are shown to us : Eric knows who Steve has been on the phone with even though he is outside a double re-enforced metal door. How? Eric locks the door with just his hand but later, opening it, he needs to take a key out of his pocket. Why? Eric takes nearly ten minutes to roll and seal a joint. Is that possible? Really? Itís been a long time since I did it, or saw someone do it, and it never took more than a minute or two, tops. How can this be?
We can excuse things like these. Thatís easy to do. Itís that ending that doesnít really exist, that not knowing how Eric feels about the events of the evening that leaves us dead-ended. Itís a shame, because there is some wonderful writing here. There is some dynamic stage business as well. It just doesnít add up to as much as it should.
Amari Cheathom plays Eric. His early scenes are difficult as his black-speak is dense and thick with only the occasional word resonating. Once he gets into the relationship with Eric, though, Cheathom gives us a much more understandable character. He is quite charming at times and at others exhibits an honest volatility that is shaking. Itís a constantly fascinating performance. He is left high and dry, though, by his director and author as he falls into his final moments alone and unaided by them.
Christian Coulson plays Steve and in his hands this young man becomes consistently younger and younger until he literally picks up his toys and runs home. It is fascinating to watch the "Harry Potter" actor on stage and see a character slowly emerge from a handsome image. His very good looks become secondary as his face and body begin to relate contrasting and ever altering emotions. Knowing he played Tom Riddle (the student Voldemort) drifts out of our minds as his American WASP with the cleaning lady fixation takes over. I even felt badly about his having to struggle his way through Harlem in an attempt to find his way home again.
Jason Simms has given us a set that sets us in places and leaves their images indelibly printed on our minds. Japhy Weidemen aids them in their correctness with lighting effects that provide an additional layer of reality which is abetted, to an extreme, by the sound design work of Bray Poor. Laurie Churba Kohn has given both men the costumes they deserve.
It falls back to Brian Roff, the director, to take the liabilities and the abilities of this production on his shoulders. He has done very good work here, but he hasnít pushed this play into a final form. At least I hope thatís the case. One more step would mean so much.
This is an evening that will ask you to stretch. Stretch your belief in coincidence, your belief in fate. It will keep you on your toes as the violence, the imparted sense of violence and the sincerity of love blend uneasily with the history and the memories of these two men. Not everything jells and the affectionate moment is surrounded by anger and disappointment and it never actually happens. Thatís a pity, too.
Amari Cheatom; photo: Christy Wright
Dutch Masters plays at the Unicorn Theater on the Berkshire Theatre Festival campus on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA through August 6. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576.