“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.
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.
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 Horowitz’s Steve we see both bookish diffidence and broish expectations of how the world will treat him. In 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.
“Dutch Masters” is a good, tidy play, in its structure and even in its metaphors. The name on a pack of Dutch Masters cigars makes Eric think of slaves and Steve think of painters. The script asks provocative questions about appropriation and responsibility, but mostly it titrates its information in a slow, suspenseful drip, gradually revealing more and more about the circumstances that have drawn these two young men together.
Each revelation reorients the relationship a couple of degrees. For the audience, it’s a pleasure to readjust assumptions and expectations accordingly, even if the play doesn’t ask you to readjust them all that much.
If “Dutch Masters” were messier, it might be even better. What would happen if instead of creating suspense, it had its characters come clean about what has brought them together right from the start, and then dealt, awkwardly and honestly, with the hurt of a past that wasn’t quite shared? That trip might be a rougher one, but I’d like to know where it would take us.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.