The title refers to the brand of cheap cigars laced with marijuana the characters smoke. This inspires a hilarious riff on New York City’s Dutch settlers in the 1600’s. In his stage directions Mr. Keller writes:
A black kid and a white kid are on a New York City subway car. A northbound D train. The white kid reads a book. The black kid stands nearby.
Steve is the white kid who is reading a science-fiction novel in 1992, and going home to the Riverdale apartment he lives in with his mother. Eric is the black kid who is going home to the South Bronx and who instigates an uneasy encounter with Steve. They’re both about 20 years old.
In 70 gripping minutes, Keller takes this familiar premise in a compelling direction. His biting dialogue reflects the divisive era during the mayoralty of the African-American David Dinkins who was defeated in 1993 by Rudolph Giuliani. Michael Stewart and Yusef Hawkins, two young African-Americans whose violent deaths were touchstones of that period are mentioned. Keller weaves these and other cultural references with a commanding sense of dramatic writing into a poignant and suspenseful experience that reaches an emotionally draining conclusion. He also has created two substantial roles.
As Eric, the magnetic and physically imposing Ian Duff is powerful as he seamlessly veers from menacing to humorous and to anguish. Mr. Duff’s vocal delivery combines superior comic timing with the earthy cadences of the street. This angry young man part gets the perfect rage filled performance by the charismatic Duff.
Numerous classical stage appearances have deepened the boyish Jake Horowitz’s talents as his performance as Steve has great weight. Whether being amiable, terrified or high, Mr. Horowitz is riveting. Horowitz depicts Steve’s mounting dread as he’s caught in a cat and mouse game with subtle force. His reactions to discovering the truth of the matter are fantastic. He and Duff have an effortless rapport that further energizes the material.
Director André Holland’s kinetic staging mines all the tension possible with his varied pacing. The play’s Pinteresque qualities are fully realized by Mr. Holland’s strong grasp of stagecraft. Are these people who they say they are? Why doesn’t he run away? Where is this all going? These are some of the tantalizing questions perpetually looming over the action.
The back wall of the stage is adorned with a panel of graffiti, evoking the tense atmosphere of the gritty New York City of the period. It’s especially visually resonant during a trek through the streets of The South Bronx to hang out in a park. Cinderblock walls and milk crates complete the imagery.
Jason Simms’ arresting scenic design also includes his symbolic representation of the subway by a chilly configuration of polished black wood and metal pipes. This setup later flips as the characters are speedily transported to another location.
Blaring rap songs, subway announcements and effects are the chief features of Daniel Kluger’s vigorous sound design. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce captures the ominous dimension with hues of stark brightness and muted dimness. T-shirts, jeans, work boots and sneakers are the simple pieces that costume designer Ntokozo Kunene artfully utilizes to accurately portray the characters.
Though its primary theme of race is vividly imparted, Dutch Masters succeeds as well as a searing mystery that’s been sensationally presented.
Dutch Masters (extended through April 28, 2018) Partial Comfort Productions
The Wild Project, 95 East Third Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.partialcomfort.org
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission