By: Darryl Reilly
The greatness of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog is affirmed by this searing revival, 20 years after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ms. Parks’ command of dramatic writing here is remarkable. The dialogue is a blend of the poetic and the vernacular, the characters are flavorfully drawn, and the plotting over two acts is leisurely yet has momentum. The play dramatizes the timeless oppression against and forced self-destructiveness of Black men inherent in U.S. society. Parks uses shades of Samuel Beckett’s absurdism, Sam Shepard’s intensity and David Mamet’s realism to tell her shattering tale.
Set “Here” and taking place “Now,” we meet two brothers who were abandoned by their parents as teenagers, each was given a $500 “inheritance.” We are at Booth’s dilapidated one-room apartment with a bathroom in the hall. He’s unemployed and ekes out a living from shop lifting. He has hopes of bettering himself and marrying his girlfriend Grace, by becoming a star Three-card Monte master like his older brother Lincoln was.
Lincoln has been staying with Booth since he broke up with his girlfriend, Cookie. Years earlier, Lincoln was gleefully fleecing tourists and an assortment of gullible shills thru his card skills. He lost his drive for it and now dresses up as Abraham Lincoln in whiteface at an amusement arcade where people pay to shoot him in the head with a prop gun. “It’s a sit-down job!” That their father playfully named them after the 16th U.S. president and his assassin is referred to and characteristic of Parks’ wicked and strategic sense of humor. Topdog/Underdog unfolds with equal strands of comedy and tragedy.
Corey Hawkins as Lincoln and Yahya Abdul-Mateen as Booth offer dazzling teamwork with the verve of a comedy duo, while erupting in fury when called for. Mr. Hawkins embraces zaniness when clad in the Lincoln costume and otherwise expresses the character’s wistful pragmatism with his soulful presence. The fiery Mr. Abdul-Mateen winningly conveys Booth’s restlessness and tempestuousness with his animated characterization. Their acting and chemistry are so strong as to achieve the illusion of their being brothers.
Director Kenny Leon’s success with the actors in matched by his inspired stagecraft. Scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado’s messily detailed dwelling includes a tattered pivotal recliner, and the configuration subtlety revolves on a turntable before a new scene. This creates a cryptic dimension with a sense of foreboding. Artifice is amplified by the playing area shrouded on its sides and top by the stage curtain, we’re really aware that we’re watching a play. Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design and Justin Ellington’s sound design each contribute to the quality of reality and make-believe converging with their moodiness. Besides the dusty sight gag Lincoln getup, costume designer Dede Ayite’s eye-catching creations are of urban flamboyance.
With its profound writing, galvanizing performances and mesmerizing presentation, this production of Topdog/Underdog is a thoughtfully thrilling experience.
Topdog/Underdog (through January 15, 2023)
John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.topdogunderdog.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission