We have all seen them on the streets of our big cities - three card monte dealers who have hands that fly through the air and mouths that move just as fast. In Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, Topdog/Underdog, the game is used as a device, proving that in one short moment all can be lost.
Now playing at Studio Theatre, Topdog/Underdog focuses on one week in the lives of two brothers, Lincoln and Booth. The infamously named brothers share a small dwelling, all the while joking, bickering and telling some hard cold truths. It is no accident that these men are named after two of the most famous people in American history. In some ways, they are very similar to each other.
Lincoln, the more responsible of the two, is a former three card monte dealer. He was the best there was. However, he has long since given up the con and is now working in an arcade where he sits all day dressed as Abraham Lincoln and patrons take turns “shooting” him in the back of the head. It is apparent that Lincoln is just trying to honestly make his way the best he can. Booth is at the other end of the spectrum. He is an excitable young man who would rather steal than work. Booth is also an aspiring monte dealer and he tries his best to persuade Lincoln to return to the game.
Parks has written a smart and provocative urban tale. It is not an easy play to watch. As the brothers’ struggles are highlighted, it is obvious that both are headed for a bitter end. However, the play is written in such a way that one never loses hope for these characters.
Directed by Joy Zinoman, the play has a rhythmic yet driven feel. This is in part due to Parks’ skillful writing but it is also the result of Zinoman’s powerful direction. These characters do not come softly into the night. They present themselves with vigor and intensity.
The brothers are deftly portrayed by Thomas W. Jones II and Jahi Kearse. Jones is a major force in the Washington theater community as a noted writer, director and actor. The ten time Helen Hayes Award recipient portrays the older brother, Lincoln. Jones is superb in this role and manages to flesh out the finer points of the character. His cast mate, Jahi Kearse, gives a high octane performance as the volatile Booth. Booth is not always a likeable character but Kearse brings out Booth’s humor and vulnerability.
Russell Metheny has designed a raw and realistic set for this piece in the form of a dilapidated one room flat and Michael Lincoln’s lighting effectively portrays the mood. Studio alum Reggie Ray has created costumes for the show that successfully define each character.
Topdog/Underdog is a magnetic piece of work. It shines a light on the game of life and reveals elements that are not always pleasing. But like three card monte, it is the excitement of the game that makes it worth playing. Topdog/Underdog runs at Studio Theatre through November 2nd.
The Studio Theatre
Booth: Jahi Kearse