In his 2018 one-act, actor and writer Greg Keller creates a relationship between two young men so poignant, agonizing, and fundamental that it’s difficult to believe no other playwright (at least to my knowledge) has explored this terrain before. Describing the true nature of their pathologically intertwined past, about which only one is aware until late in the play, would spoil nearly everything in these intermittently riveting 75 minutes—largely because Keller unwisely turns what might be the play’s animating event into the eleventh hour big reveal.
Eric and Steve meet in New York City in 1992 on a deserted D train headed uptown. Eric, who’s black, is peculiarly intent on engaging Steve, who’s white, in conversation. By turns charming, inscrutable, and menacing, Eric spends a long opening scene alternately cajoling and taunting Steve, who’s determined not to appear rude or rattled, with aimless chatter as though setting him up for, well, god knows what. Given the play’s title, Keller’s likely channeling Amiri Baraka’s 1964 two-hander Dutchman, in which a white woman, every bit as alluring and unpredictable as Eric, accosts and seduces a black man on a New York subway train with tragic results.
Had Keller left his characters on the train, his play might not have gone off the rails quite so quickly. Instead, Steve agrees to get off the train with Eric somewhere in the South Bronx—after Eric’s told him he robs people and blocked him from exiting at his own stop. Eric’s pledge to score some weed for the pair adds little credulity. Why Steve would then agree to go to Eric’s apartment is a mystery even the strong spliff they share can’t explain.
Once they arrive, though, the play gets back on track when Eric finally reveals Steve is no stranger to him. When they were both children, Eric routinely spent time in Steve’s house, even played with his toys, although Steve could never have known. Eric is in essence Steve’s shadow, and the intersection of their histories invokes profoundly discomfiting issues about race and class that Keller expertly personalizes in the men’s attempt to make sense of their not-quite-shared lives.
In this Jackalope premiere, director Wardell Julius Clark brings this final section of Dutch Masters thrillingly to life, thanks in large part to Patrick Agada’s mesmerizing, at times unbearable performance as Eric. Agada navigates an emotional minefield as Eric cycles though spite, regret, betrayal, helplessness, and soul-splitting rage. As Steve, Sam Boeck is mostly stuck flinching in fear and bewilderment, which is about all the script gives him to do.
Once the complications of their shared past come to light—and their devastating effect on Eric—the final 15 minutes are indelible. One wonders why Keller didn’t start the play much later and devote all 75 minutes to the stuff that matters. v