Also see Sharon's review of Clutter
But what makes the show worthwhile is its mesmerizing dialogue, and the work of the two artists - not just actors, but true artists - who deliver it.
Larry Gilliard Jr. opens the show as Booth, the younger brother. He begins with a seamless monologue, the patter of a street three card monte dealer. Gilliard's delivery of the rhythmic dialogue is flawless; it's the sort of thing that makes you involuntarily check to make sure your wallet is still in your pocket. But then Booth attempts to deal the cards and the magic disappears. Booth has the words, but he handles the cards so poorly, he is the only one in the theatre who does not know where the money card is hiding.
The play is not solely about three card monte, but a lot of the dialogue is written in the same hypnotic tempo as a dealer's patter. The brothers do not so much talk as alternate rhythmic lines. This isn't to say the play is written is rhyme, or that there's a soundtrack to the show - it's much more subtle than that. But a lot of Topdog/Underdog is written in the fast-paced street dialogue of con men, and Gilliard is absolutely brilliant with it.
Harold Perrineau also has a facility with Parks's crisp dialogue in his portrayal of the older brother, Lincoln. Perrineau's performance isn't quite as eye catching as Gilliard's, although that is at least partially attributable to the fact his role isn't as well written. Lincoln is a former three card monte dealer who got out of the game and is now trying to make an honest living. Lincoln has a three-hundred-dollar-a-week job at an arcade, where he dresses as Abraham Lincoln and sits in a theatre seat, allowing patrons to play assassin and shoot him with blanks. The humiliation cannot possibly be understated: Lincoln spends his days pretending to be his famous namesake; Lincoln, a black man, has a job where he must wear white face; Lincoln must sit in a chair and repeatedly pretend to be shot; Lincoln has a job where he is in danger of being replaced by a wax dummy. Any one of these things would be enough to convey to the audience the toll Lincoln's job must take on his sense of self-worth. With all of them, Perrineau is in danger of drowning in the symbolism of his role. (He is not at all aided by Scott Zielinski's striking lighting, which, although dramatic and eye catching, sometimes has Perrineau's Lincoln very literally overshadowed by the towering figure of a man in a tailcoat and stovepipe hat.) But Perrineau frequently overcomes all of this, smoothly getting through Lincoln's riffs. Moreover, although the task is made extremely difficult by Gilliard's bravura performance, Perrineau ultimately succeeds at conveying the necessary truth that Lincoln is an even better speaker of the dealer's speech than Booth.
It is something of a disappointment that Topdog/Underdog doesn't have a more unique storyline; the ending of its characters' journey is routine and therefore unsatisfying. However, the journey itself, with its unusual style of dialogue performed by two extremely gifted actors, is well worth it.
Topdog/Underdog runs at the Mark Taper Forum through March 28, 2004. For information or tickets, click: www.taperahmanson.com
Center Theatre Group/Music Center of Los Angeles County, Mark Taper Forum; Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre, Sharon Ott, Artistic Director; Benjamin Moore, Managing Director, presents Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Assistant Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges; Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier; Casting by Jordan Thaler and Amy Lieberman, CSA. Production Stage Manager Mary K Klinger; Stage Manager Michelle Blair.
Photo by Craig Schwartz