WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Systemic racism is a term bandied about these days, but it’s a nebulous one to many, not so much to its victims. Northern Stage has produced a 2018 play that illustrates exactly what it is. And that it is so relatable makes it very unsettling.
“Dutch Masters,” Dave Keller’s two-man play, is seen in a poignant performance that is part comedy, part thriller and part morality play. And although its message goes deep, it is also quite entertaining.
In this time of COVID-19, Northern Stage is on the cutting–edge of the nation’s theater world. Tonight, it will open “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” at the Barrette Arts Center, making it the first LORT (League of Resident Theatres) theater in the United States to present a live indoor performance in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic.
However, Northern Stage filmed “Dutch Masters,” using all appropriate COVID protocols throughout the full staging process, and posted it online Thursday for viewing through Oct. 21. The same process will be used for a virtual version of “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” (Oct. 22-Nov. 29), and a double bill of Marisa Smith’s “The Naked Librarian” and Anton Chekhov’s “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco” (Nov. 5-29).
In “Dutch Masters,” we find ourselves on the New York City subway D train in the summer of 1992 when two men of college age meet, the upper middle class and White Steve and the hip but enigmatic African American Eric. The two don’t know each other, but they both seem to sense a connection.
Eric accosts Steve using street language, some that may be threatening or not, making this obvious preppie very uncomfortable. Steve doesn’t know what to do, but pretends to not be afraid, partly out of a sense of liberal guilt. As Eric verbally boxes him in, Steve becomes more comfortable and the two even get stoned together.
It’s not long before they find themselves in Eric’s home. While Steve goes back and forth between fun and fear, he begins to feel a certain familiarity.
His eventual discovery becomes a moment of self-discovery for both men – in a powerful, poignant and truly enlightening moment.
Northern Stage’s online production, directed by Rachel Dickson, is quite effective as filmed theater. It wasn’t difficult to suspend belief to find oneself enjoying an intimate drama in the Barrette Center for the Arts.
The performance benefited from two actors comfortable with their roles and each other, as both characters shed their shallowness in the final twist. Nuri Hazzard was delicious in the role of Eric, at first an unserious sitcom-like character, finally revealing an unexpected depth.
As Steve, John Kroft presented hilariously as the wanting-to-be-hip White boy as he joined in Eric’s play, and quite touching as he faces reality. Save for some lagging moments — more likely a problem in the writing — the ensemble work was effective and inviting.
The production quality was largely excellent. Although there were moments of filming flaws, designed by Alek Diva with sound design by Kate Marvin, it was nearly seamless and dramatically effective. Costumes by Celeste Jennings and scenic design by James Roeder felt authentic. Scene interludes were particularly stylish and contributed to the dramatic momentum.
Northern Stage’s “Dutch Masters” delivers a wallop — an unsettling but revelatory wallop.