There are two kinds of people in this world: subway riders who scooch together when the platform’s packed, and those who stand rooted comfortably apart, content to watch would-be passengers fight like animals to get on board, be crushed by the doors, get left behind. The truth the latter group seems to be missing is that we are all in this together—riders on the same train.
Dutch, the idealistic hero of Robert Glaudini’s Dutch Heart of Man in a new production by Animus Theatre Company (Cherry Lane Theatre, through May 11), is yearning to look out for his fellow man—to make room on the train. A construction worker who takes great pride in his specialty, terrazzo grinding, he repeatedly seeks out meaningful human contact and the chance to do good, but time and again is met with confusion and contempt at his otherworldly selflessness—perceived as naiveté by the disillusioned around him. His awkward failures to connect, most painfully with the woman he has fallen for, drive him to boiling point by the play’s quietly tragic culmination.
The unrequited humanism of Dutch’s fictional world was returned by a notably appreciative audience the night I attended. Any New Yorker with half a heart can’t help but notice and at times deplore the ways we step on and over each other. But the play is more question than answer, examination than judgment, and Glaudini has crafted his story without sentimentality. Under the direction of Alan Langdon, the actors in this smooth staging—only the play’s second since its Labyrinth Theater Company premiere in 2003—are credible down to the smallest role.
Dutch is fully fleshed—the laborer’s welcome physique included—by Zachary Spicer (soon to be seen in Kenneth Branagh’s take on the Scottish Play). In his rich interpretation this gentle giant is anything but a type. As Dutch’s scrupleless foil and the play’s provocateur is Marty, his job-mate and the closest thing he has to a friend. Obsessed with sex and his mother, the 30-something Irish-Italian is played with frightening realism by Jeff Todesco, whose rhapsodies on breasts and his various sexapades I won’t soon forget. The object of Dutch’s affections, Florence, is brought to spirited life by Amy Northup. Another “good person” she cheerfully cares for her mortally emphysemic mother, works two dead-end jobs seven days a week, and has Dionysian needs of her own.
A dusty, plastic-draped, claustrophobic set by Scott Tedmon-Jones could be a construction site anywhere in the world and morphs elegantly to indicate the other various settings of the play. In the intimate Studio at Cherry Lane the experience is deeply and satisfyingly theatrical. Immersed in their underworld, up close and personal with the play’s motley crew, Glaudini’s use of theatrical convention and soliloquy mixed with dead-ringer dialogue beautifully showcases the theatre’s ability to write its own rules.
Glaudini, a child of the Sixties and avant-garde theatre movement, wrote Dutch in the early 2000s. His one-love leanings hadn’t faded since his Greenwich days and the themes resonate today: Why aren’t we better? Could we be? At times Dutch seems proof there are certain people who just can’t bear life in this world, calling to mind the Candidian solution that life is best spent simply tending one’s own garden—or grinding terrazzo—seven days a week.
Dutch Heart of Man is the kind of conversation you want to have with yourself but rarely permit, yet feels so good to have with another. With its many virtues, one wonders how such a moving, thought-provoking and entertaining work has been so long dormant. Welcome back.