Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Topdog/Underdog
Huntington Theatre Company
Review by Josh Garstka


Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Matthew J. Harris
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
You don't win unless the dealer lets you win. Even when you think you're on top, the dealer's always ready to pull it out from under you. That's the story of the game Lincoln and Booth hustle: three-card Monte, just three cards you have to watch. It takes skill to pull off a good con, not just luck; "ain't never nothing lucky about them cards," Lincoln tells his brother Booth. But the stakes in Topdog/Underdog aren't just win or lose. They're life or death.

Sixteen years after it first premiered Off-Broadway, Suzan-Lori Parks' play feels startlingly relevant in the Huntington Theatre Company's engaging and unflinching production. These brothers are two African-American men disadvantaged by a system designed to hold them back, who dream of making it big in a world where opportunity isn't parceled out fairly. Parks' characters speak in a language that's musical and contemporary, working off each other like jazz soloists with wit and humor. But director Billy Porter (who returns to the Huntington after directing 2015's The Colored Museum) doesn't linger much on the comedy. He keeps us aware of what haunts these two men; an unrelenting anger fills the spaces between the brothers' dialogue. It's the anger of today, the powerlessness of having the deck stacked against you, and it propels this staging to its unavoidable showdown.

Both brothers have been dealt bad hands, but they're looking to make something of themselves. Lincoln, who's five years older and noticeably wearier, is content to have a sit-down job with benefits, working in a shooting arcade where he impersonates his presidential namesake—hat, fake beard, white face paint, and all—so that tourists can pay to kill him. He acts out the president's slow-motion assassination twice, once for his brother, once (chillingly) just for the audience. His ex-wife asked him to leave, he's moved into younger brother Booth's one-room apartment while he gets back on his feet. Meanwhile, Booth is determined to become an expert card dealer himself—when he's not stealing on the side—and he pressures Lincoln to help him master the game.

Both actors draw on each other so naturally that a genuine chemistry forms. Matthew J. Harris as Booth is the more natural salesman of the two, green and impetuous, with a relentless need for attention and approval from his older brother. He owns the stage when called to, and his wiry energy makes more sense in light of an unexpected development late in the show. Harris has the good looks and charisma to suggest a man who might make it one day—if only we didn't know better.

Opposite Harris, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson carries more of the play's weight on his shoulders. His Lincoln is a burdened man—by the fear he'll lose his humiliating job, a reliance on whiskey, the indignity of sharing his younger brother's cramped apartment. Henderson starts out at a gentle simmer; his voice sounds strained, as if he can't quite muster the strength at first. But his performance takes on size as Lincoln reconnects with his past; he has the affect of someone out of place and out of time, a historical man of importance reborn in a 21st-century black man's body. His persona in the first act closer, where he works himself into a nightmarish frenzy reliving his dealing days, is legitimately frightening.

Even at the height of the brothers' rivalry, the love they hold for each other is apparent. But this love is often externalized and theatrical; their story becomes a cage match to see who comes out on top. Whether these men realize it or not, they are always "on"; every hustle, every assassination is a performance. Even their apartment in the Huntington set is designed (by Clint Ramos) as a stage within a stage, surrounded by sharp wooden spikes jutting out ominously in all directions. An actor and musician himself, Porter understands the rhythm and tempo of the play—the brothers' cadences, their ebbs and flows, when they step up and when they back down—and he maintains the tension as Parks' style shifts and the conflict intensifies.

Near the end, Lincoln asks Booth, "I know we brothers, but is we really brothers, you know? Blood brothers or not, you and me?" It's a line that redefines how these men see each other, to think of coming this far only to question something so fundamental. For all of Topdog/Underdog's ingenuity, the Huntington production makes room for the brothers' unresolved pain. History inevitably repeats itself, Parks' writing suggests, and some wounds are too lasting to heal.

Topdog/Underdog is presented by the Huntington Theatre Company through April 9, 2017, at the BU Theatre (264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA). Tickets are available at huntingtontheatre.org or at 617-266-0800.

Cast: Matthew J. Harris (Booth), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lincoln).

Creative Team: Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Billy Porter; Scenic & Costume Design: Clint Ramos; Lighting Design: Driscoll Otto; Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg; Casting: Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager: Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager: Kevin Schlagle.


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