Review: In ‘Dutch Masters,’ Subway Seatmates, So Close and Yet So Far

Review: In ‘Dutch Masters,’ Subway Seatmates, So Close and Yet So Far

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Jake Horowitz and Ian Duff as young men who meet on a New York subway — but why? — in Greg Keller’s “Dutch Masters.”

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Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

“Dutch Masters,” Greg Keller’s two-character drama, is set in 1992. We know this because Eric (Ian Duff), who is black, has dinky headphones and because Steve (Jake Horowitz), who is white, is clutching a paperback, not a Kindle. The subway is running without rerouting or delays, so clearly this must be some misty long ago.

Steve wants to read; Eric wants to chat. Steve doesn’t, but he’s too polite — or more likely too scared about being seen as a jerk — to disengage. After a lengthy scene, Eric lures him off the train, with Steve too curious and frightened, or maybe just too self-conscious, to bring himself to run away.

Mr. Keller is also an actor, a valuable presence Off Broadway for years, specializing in performances that manage to be self-critical of masculinity. André Holland is of course better known as a performer, too. “Dutch Masters,” now receiving its New York premiere from Partial Comfort Productions, is his directorial debut.

Together they’ve helped both actors burrow deeply into their roles and have made sure that our sympathies divide neatly. In Mr. Horowitz’s Steve we see both bookish diffidence and broish expectations of how the world will treat him. In Mr. Duff’s Eric there’s an unstable anger dovetailing with a genuine desire for connection.

But because Eric’s motives and agenda are a mystery to both Steve and the audience, the play has us take its ride as Steve takes it, to see Eric as he does. Maybe this is a barbed invitation to a (likely mostly white) audience, even a reasonably woke one, to project its prejudices and unease onto Eric.

The script, written in vivid, conversational language, confirms at least a few of those prejudices. Eric is in fact dangerous, though not necessarily in the ways and for the reasons we might at first expect. And while we may judge Steve for his squirrelly unease and unthinking privilege, if it’s wrong to feel uneasy about someone who invades your personal space and gives you unwelcome drugs, then I don’t want to be right.

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