Two guys strike up an unlikely conversation on a New York subway car. One is a young black man; the other, young and white. The black man is intimidating. The white man tries not to cower.
As it turns out, these are not just any two guys, and therein lies a tale that I cannot tell you, because I would spoil the potent “Dutch Masters,” which launches Azuka Theatre’s season, as part of the Philly Fringe festival.
I can tell you that playwright Greg Keller has a great way of finessing an unlikely storyline – almost none of the plot devices in “Dutch Masters” are likely, beginning with the play’s first scene: daytime, on a New York subway car that appears to contain just these two characters. (Find me that car so that I can have a seat, for a change.)
What Keller manages through the rest of the 75-minute drama is a number of twists and turns more surprising and more engrossing, even as they continue to be implausible. By the end, “Dutch Masters” forces you to consider what passed for relationships between many black and white families in much of the last half of the 20th century. In that, it reverberates, and has much in common with a wholly different show, the Tony Kushner musical “Caroline, Or Change.”
If you’ve seen that musical, you know that it’s a painful look at the way a white family in the South relates to the black maid who essentially keeps the house together. I’ll say no more about how that comes into play in “Dutch Masters,” but it does – and with a wallop.
It’s no wonder that the production, originally set to close this weekend, has been extended a full week. The actors in this two-hander – Brandon Pierce as Eric, the black guy, and Brendan Dalton as his new-found white pal, Steve – are remarkable in their roles. Pierce is impulsive and alternately generous of spirit and altogether threatening. Dalton delivers a portrait of social panic – he’s afraid he’ll say something to cause an explosion, afraid he’ll come off on the wrong side of racial respect, afraid for his safety. You can see the differences between these two characters just by watching the actors’ eyes.
“Dutch Masters” is fluidly staged by Azuka Theatre’s producing artistic director, Kevin Glaccum, and enhanced by Meghan Jones’ facile scenic design and Andrew Nelson’s sound, which has you squarely on the subway in the first part. The play, with all its improbability, is one of those little gems that isn’t much talked about but should be. The production makes it real._
“Dutch Masters” runs through Sept. 29 at Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com