Dulé Hill and Jennifer Mudge
in Dutchman
(© Gabe Evans)
Dulé Hill and Jennifer Mudge
in Dutchman
(© Gabe Evans)
Director Bill Duke's electrifying revival of Dutchman, a seminal play by Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones), is currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre -- the same venue in which the work debuted in 1964. Though the action remains set in the 1960s, the play feels fresh and contemporary, thanks in large part to stellar production design and the vibrant performances of lead actors Dulé Hill and Jennifer Mudge.

Set in a NYC subway car, Dutchman concerns Clay (Hill), a middle-class African-American man in suit and tie. He is approached by Lula (Mudge), a seductive white woman in a black dress, who's seen symbolically biting into an apple on her first appearance. Their seemingly innocent flirtation eventually gives way to a sinister, racially charged exchange that culminates in a brutal act of violence.

When first produced, the play sparked controversy for its depiction of the unadulterated rage that lurks behind the façade of the apparently assimilated black man at the play's core. It was also accused of misogyny for its portrayal of the white woman. The current production doesn't shy away from either of those aspects, but it is so vividly performed that such a simplistic reduction of Dutchman seems unfair.

Hill and Mudge are pitch-perfect in their roles, and they exhibit an undeniable chemistry fraught with tension and desire. Hill starts the show with a winning awkwardness, as Clay is unsure how seriously to take Lulu's advances. But as she continues to push his buttons, his low-key energy gives way to a ferocious anger that is startling in its intensity, even when he delivers a speech containing some of Baraka's most lyrical lines. On the other hand, Mudge's Lula remains consistently exuberant throughout, although a flash of panic and fear goes through her at the onset of Clay's impassioned monologue. Both actors mine the play's humor early on, making the inevitable turn towards violence even more striking in contrast.

Troy Hourie's subway-car set is largely realistic but rendered in shades of gray. Ads for a "Miss Subways" campaign firmly root the action in the era when the play was written, yet a full-color video design by Aaron Rhyne gives everything a contemporary sheen. Prior to the show, images of a busy, modern-day subway platform are projected on the set and on one of the walls of the theater. During the performance, more video plays outside the subway car's windows, speeding up and slowing down to give the convincing illusion of the train hurtling along the rails. All of this effectively conflates past and present, which appear to exist simultaneously.

The concept is continued in Rebecca Bernstein's costumes, which are neutral enough to have been worn in the '60s but would be just as fashionable today, if not more so. Sound designers Drew Levy and Tony Smolenski incorporate familiar subway noises, such as the high-pitched ping that precedes the closing of the car doors. Jeff Croiter's lighting is fine during the play itself, but his pre-show idea of having the lights flicker as they sometimes do on a subway train is a bit too much and may leave some viewers feeling nauseous.

Another artistic choice that doesn't quite work is having the African-American train conductor (Paul Benjamin) perform a grotesque, minstrel-like routine at the beginning and end of the play, and during scene breaks. In the script, he appears only at the end, "doing a sort of restrained soft shoe and half mumbling the words of some song." His additional appearances seem unnecessary and distracting.

However, these are only minor quibbles about an otherwise terrific production. Running just under an hour with no intermission, Dutchman retains the power to shock. Its cyclical (and cynical) ending is just another reminder that, while some things change, a lot still remains the same.