The Yale Cabaret’s production of “Dutch Masters” begins in a subway car. The fluorescent lights flicker on. Some of the audience turns out to be sitting in the car itself, and for a second, we don’t know who or where the actors are.
Suddenly, one of the passengers is shouting a story — to us? to himself? we don’t know — the kind of story in which every other word is unfit to print and the rest of it doesn’t seem to matter much.
After he’s finished rambling, the passenger tries to get a response from an audience member — oh wait — they’re having a dialogue — this must be a second character — “My name’s Steve,” says Steve, who turns out not to be an audience member after all.
Eric — the first passenger — spends the next 10 minutes relentlessly coaxing, guilt-tripping (“you racist?”) and finally dragging Steve off the train to smoke a joint with him. They joke, they laugh, but the tension remains. 72 minutes later, when Steve’s holding Eric at gunpoint in his own house, it’s too late for us to turn back — we’ve already followed them off the train.
The scene is an eerie inversion of our expectations at the beginning of the play, and an ironic twist to Eric’s initial joke when he notices Steve’s obvious fear — “How do I know you ain’t gonna stick me up?”
Which brings us to the twisted problem at the core of the play: The two strangers were raised by the same woman, Gloria — Eric’s mother and Steve’s housemaid.
Eric played in Steve’s house when Steve went to camp. Eric got Steve’s old clothes and toys. Steve got — well, Eric’s mother, who spent more time with him than she was able to spend with her own son.
When it turns out that Steve never even learned her last name — that he doesn’t even know she’s dead — Eric gets aggressive. Steve gets defensive.
And so we’re back to Steve, holding a handgun with shaking hands, explaining to his shadow brother that he didn’t want to hurt him.
It’s incredibly clear that neither one of the men wants this to be their final moment, but Steve gives up, drops the gun and walks out the door. The ending is wrenching, like a subway car that stops too quickly. There was a friendship, moments ago, and it’s gone.
After the show, we asked the actors what it feels like be in a play that has no resolution and offers no solution. Leland Fowler DRA ’17, who plays Eric, and Edmund Donovan DRA ’17, who plays Steve, both said the same thing: It’s hard to go through the whole play — the jokes, the moments of friendship — knowing how it ends. Knowing that the final moment is inevitable. As actors, they’re trapped by author Greg Keller’s words.
The nature of Keller’s script serves as a parallel to the reality the play describes: People trapped in a system where, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves alienated, walled off from each other by the same invisible walls that separate strangers in a crowded subway car. The walls that once separated two halves of a bus have now become invisible, but they’re still there.
Steve, however enamored he is with black basketball players, rap and swag, replaces humans with cultural caricatures. His fetishization turns out to be as dehumanizing as any Jim Crow-era stereotype, to the point where he doesn’t even know the name of the woman who raised him. Or that she had a son who used to play in his house.
One phrase stuck with us. “Thinking ain’t good enough,” says Eric. The core of Steve’s problem is that all he does is think. He thinks, but he doesn’t care. He thinks, but he doesn’t see. He thinks, but he doesn’t listen. The thinking is real, but it’s in his head, and he’s never been outside.
Contact Stephan Sveshnikov at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jenna McGuire at email@example.com .