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Stage Review

‘Dutch’ makes a taut, thrilling treat

Christian Coulson (left) and Amari Cheatom in Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Dutch Masters.’’ Christian Coulson (left) and Amari Cheatom in Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Dutch Masters.’’ (Christy Wright)
By Sandy MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / July 27, 2011

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STOCKBRIDGE - You’re sitting on the subway, minding your own business, maybe buried in a book, when someone agitated and off-kilter initiates a conversation. If you haven’t had an experience of this sort, you’ve surely witnessed one, and so playwright Greg Keller’s “Dutch Masters’’ - enjoying a superb world premiere presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group - has you hooked from word one.

That word would be coming from Eric (the electrifying Amari Cheatom), as he describes to a bunch of unseen friends, his “boys,’’ how a recent fight went down. The loser, Eric jokes, ended up with a Timberland symbol embossed on his forehead, the opponent having “laced him with a free tatt.’’ (Keller has his signifiers just right: “Tims’’ were the shoe of choice among Manhattan gangs circa 1992, when this play is set.)

Given the relish with which Eric describes the melee, he’s clearly someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. Little wonder high-schooler Steve (Christian Coulson) does his best to be polite but noncommittal when Eric turns his attention toward him - casing him out, popping out of the subway car (which set designer Jason Simms summons with a chunk of seating) at every stop only to pop back in at the last second to resume an odd conversational courtship.

Just what does Eric want from Steve, anyway? Steve - whom Eric correctly pegs as a resident of the moneyed Bronx enclave of Riverdale, accessible via a subway line that traverses Harlem - succeeds in resisting every overture but one: Eric’s offhanded observation that Steve’s standoffishness must stem from racism.

I can’t tell you what happens next, or you’d be deprived of the many surprise twists that Keller has packed into this taut 70-minute thriller, which director Brian Roff (who also oversaw an earlier workshop production at New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company) revs to optimal effect, hitting every surprise pocket of humor written in.

“Dutch Masters’’ - the title alludes to a cigar that lends itself well to blunts, as well as Holland’s role in the early slave trade, and Steve’s interest in art - is an edge-of-your-seat ride all the way, mainly because of Eric’s scary volatility. Cheatom’s performance is a nonstop tour de force.

Coulson excels at conveying the vulnerability of a boy who’s trying to do the right thing but is pretty much clueless as to what that might be. (Coulson’s feat is all the more remarkable given that he’ s British - he appeared in an early Harry Potter movie - and a good decade older that the character, though you’d never guess.) Steve lets himself be lured way out of his comfort zone, and we’re forced to go along.

Claiming his own territory, Eric gets successively less gangsta. He drops his posturing, the bravado he puts on for the streets. By play’s end, having brought about a devastating catharsis, his face appears naked and plain - his anxiety, his lostness, every bit as exposed as Steve’s, and maybe even more so.

The encounter is really a confrontation of cultures, rendered with such specificity, every word and action reads as real, and not schematic. “I’m your shadow,’’ Eric tells Steve at one point. He is indeed, in several senses. Keller’s brilliant, concise script pries open the shadowy recesses required to support lives of privilege.

Sandy MacDonald can be reached at sandy@sandymacdonald.com

DUTCH MASTERS

Play by Greg Keller

Directed by: Brian Roff. Set, Jason Simms. Lights, Japhy Weidemen. Costumes, Laurie Churba Kohn. Sound, Bray Poor.

Presented by Berkshire Theatre Group.

At: Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, through Aug. 6. Tickets: $15-$39. 413-298-5576, www.berkshiretheatre.org