Theater Reviews

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Cherry Lane Theatre, New York
Through Feb. 10


On March 24, 1964, "Dutchman" created controversy at the Cherry Lane Theatre for its shocking, take-no-prisoners assault on racism in America. Almost 43 years later, the show has returned to the same theater. And thanks to the play's power and/or the sad state of current affairs, its message still strikes a raw nerve.

Of course, a little star wattage doesn't hurt the refurbished production. Dule Hill, known from his long-running TV role on "The West Wing" and his current gig on USA Network's "Psych," delivers an amazing slow burn that erupts into the unspeakable. He is downright scary as rage incarnate.

Actually, Hill gets to do a complete 180. As the play opens, he's a quiet, young black man sitting alone in a New York subway car. Suddenly, a slightly older white woman (Jennifer Mudge) decked out in cleavage-baring dress, high heels and sunglasses sits next to him, offering a proverbial apple along with a barrage of sexual come-ons. Her manic rants also include a healthy dose of race baiting, spiced with generous helpings of the N-word.

As other riders enter the subway car, the verbiage and accompanying action gets more intense, as if having an audience spurs the anti-heroes' flirtations with lust and hatred. Power ultimately shifts back and forth between the pair, leading to tragic, decidedly disturbing results.

Long before the violent finale, though, viewers will find themselves doing a reality check on the play's chain of events. But be warned: This isn't a conventional drama. The train itself is a metaphor for life's journey, with all the characters -- including patrons who hide behind their reading material and a shuffling Uncle Tom-inspired conductor -- representing caricatures. The narrative's very angry message is what is front and center.

Aside from the undeniable strength and resonance of the script, penned by LeRoi Jones (who now goes by the name Amiri Baraka), much credit for the revival's success belongs to Bill Duke, a longtime Hollywood presence as a director and actor. His direction here ensures that the script's blend of discomfort, humor, horror and tension is seamless.

And that's not even mentioning Mudge, whose flashy entrance and subsequent tirades as the aptly named Lula can't fail to impress. Finally, Troy Hourie's set and Jeff Croiter's lighting earn kudos for cleverly creating effects that make the subway car appear constantly in motion.

If there's any downside, it's the running time. The play is a scant 40 minutes, and with a $40 ticket price, that's a buck a minute. One can't help but wonder why the production wasn't paired with another one-act play -- maybe Jones' equally scorching "The Slave" -- to give patrons more for their money.

Regardless, "Dutchman" still packs a wallop, as it probably will in yet another 40 years.

DUTCHMAN
Presented by Cherry Lane Theatre
Credits:
Playwright: LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka)
Director: Bill Duke
Set designer: Troy Hourie
Costume designer: Rebecca Bernstein
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Sound designer: Drew Levy, Tony Smolenski
Video designer: Aaron Rhyne
Cast:
Clay: Dule Hill
Lula: Jennifer Mudge
Conductor/Drunk: Paul Benjamin
Subway Riders: Christina Lind, Arthur Lindquist
Young Negro: Justin Carter
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