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Topdog/Underdog

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

While there may occasionally be layers of meaning indicated by the names of a play's characters, one would hope that those names would not detract from the play itself. The character names in Topdog/Underdog are but one of a series of missteps that make Suzan-Lori Parks's new play at the Public Theater's Anspacher Theater too closely toe the line between drama and over-symbolic schlock.

After all, when you learn that the play's only two characters - African-American men, mind you - are named Booth and Lincoln, what conclusions can you not draw about the two or so hours to follow? If you think you know what the last few minutes of the play hold in store, you are probably right; Parks does little to discourage these preconceptions.

Of course, neither is Parks content to merely name her characters after the two prominent historical figures. Taking it to the next logical step, she has Lincoln (Jeffrey Wright) work at the local arcade, dressing as President Lincoln as a target for one of the shooting games. Lincoln's first entrance, in fact, is made in full Abraham Lincoln costume, complete with whiteface. Parks, indeed, pulls no punches and leaves no chance that the symbolism will be lost on the audience.

The play's Booth (Don Cheadle) is Lincoln's younger brother who hopes to make the name for himself as a Three-Card Monte dealer that his brother did years previously. Lincoln has lost interest in the cards, but Booth sees the game as the way to achieve the success for which they have both been searching for so long. Both men were abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, and Lincoln, after being kicked out by his wife, is living in Booth's run-down apartment (effectively designed by Riccardo Hernandez), providing the paycheck off of which the brothers live. The majority of Topdog/Underdog consists of the two brothers learning more about each other and the family, and making tough choices about their relationship with each other.

Of the two, Cheadle gives the more natural, watchable performance, displaying an enthusiasm and drive that help to perk up some of the slower moments in the play and injects comedy into an otherwise dreary set of proceedings. Wright is more difficult to accept, his Lincoln displaying few real layers of complexity - beyond the requisite pride - or even changes in voice. The lengthier speeches he is saddled with approach painful far more quickly than they do enlightening or emotional.

Ultimately, however, that is less the fault of Wright than of Parks herself, who provides little for either brother beyond mostly stereotypical and surface-level character traits. Most of the brothers' revelatory moments are strained, with some speeches more of a last-ditch attempt at character development than expansion deriving naturally from the current events of the play. Most of these developments seem to have no reason (beyond dramatic convenience) not to have occurred years before the start of the play, which further stretches believability.

George C. Wolfe, the frequently innovative director who has displayed a great flair in many of other works including Angels in America and last year's brilliant The Wild Party, is here clearly in over his head. Left with a single set, and staging primarily Three Card Monte games and over-extended conversations, his direction proves unobtrusive to the point of unnoticeable. He is unable to make the majority of Parks's dramatic moments work, resulting in sluggish pacing (particularly near the end of the acts) and a lack of serious forward motion throughout.

Given the script he has to work with, though, perhaps that is to be expected. At one point near the middle of the first act, Lincoln - unprompted - reveals the reason he and his brother were given their peculiar names, as explained by their father: As a joke. All the unsuccessful attempts at seriousness and substantive drama render this play little more than a joke itself. The play's rather infrequent intended humor aside, there is little reason to laugh about Topdog/Underdog.

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The Joseph Papp Public Theater
Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Through August 12
Public Theater's Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online: Tele-Charge