Dutch Masters, Greg Keller’s superbly taut two-hander receiving a gutsy Midwest premiere at Jackalope Theatre, is a play of mounting tension and slow reveals–the piece demands that the duo of performers balance an absurdist, punchy humor with a paranoid sense of unease, oftentimes juggling the two modes at the same time. As directed by Wardell Julius Clark, Patrick Agada and Sam Boeck more than succeed, scoring a veritable home run in 90 breathless minutes, delivering one of the most intense and provocative shows I’ve seen at the company’s Broadway Armory venue.
The set-up is quick and simple: Steve (Boek) is reading a thick paperback on the D train in 1992 NYC. Eric (Agada) is lingering closely, and strikes up a conversation. Initially, Steve defers to pleasantries, but Eric is persistent. Eric asks if Steve goes to school; No, he replies. Later, feeling uncomfortable, Steve says he has to get off the train to go to class. Eric catches the lie, and presses–and so begins an increasingly anxious game of verbal cat and mouse, Eric trying to remain calm and collected with Steve dancing around his motives and playing with Eric’s fragile sense of security.
The rest of the story, thanks to a killer script by Keller with consistently satisfying reveals and knife-twists, is best experienced in the moment–but I will say that it packs some weighty thematic heft. Most central, Keller is musing on class and race, exploring the very different childhoods of two young men who are linked by circumstance and history. And the the idea of appropriation is cleverly given literal context as the story unfolds–the two men face the fact that the question of “who owns what” can’t be considered until we stare the ugly truth in the face: that the question was once, not too long ago, “who owns who.”
I really enjoyed both of these performances–this play wouldn’t work nearly as well if there was any slack; luckily these two actors never let up on the gas. Boeck has a particularly tough job, playing an increasingly anxious straight-man, and he manages to keep Steve endearing and sympathetic. But this is really Agada’s show–he gives a no-holds-barred performance, towing the line between charming showman and explosive livewire, in what is ultimately an intensely moving character study.
And there is a nifty scenic reveal courtesy of designer Ryan Emens that I won’t spoil here–but it was one of the coolest, spookiest scene shifts I’ve ever seen, packing mood and story into a transition I didn’t want to end.
On opening night, as Dutch Masters unfolded its nerve-wrecking finale, the audible gasps and white-knuckling of the audience was evidence that director Clark and company had done what they set out to do: take us on a intelligent thrill ride that is as moving as it is entertaining.