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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Exemplary Production of
Pulitzer Prize Play Topdog/Underdog

Topdog/Underdog
Shane Taylor and Jamahl Marsh
Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play, is being presented in an intimate, naturalistic production at Luna Stage in Montclair. While the play is as poetic as it is naturalistic, the approach taken here by director Eric Ruffin provides more clarity and involvement than George C. Wolfe’s more histrionic 2001 production at New York’s Public Theatre.

Described as a darkly comic fable, Topdog/Underdog is the story of a fateful few days in the lives of two African-American brothers whose lives are doomed by race and circumstance. The setting is their shared room (with no running water and a communal bathroom down the hall) in a dilapidated rooming house. In this metaphoric play, the setting is the cesspool in which males of the black underclass find themselves.

Lincoln, having been thrown out by his wife, has moved in on his younger brother Booth. Linc is an accomplished three card monte hustler. However, he has given up this lucrative swindle and is employed portraying Abraham Lincoln in whiteface (another metaphor here) at Fords Theatre in a beach arcade shooting gallery (“sit down job with benefits”). Booth is a shoplifter extraordinaire. His ambition is to attain Linc’s skill as a three card monte dealer.

The interplay between the brothers is often humorous. The scene in which Booth returns to their room with suits and ties which he has “boosted” for both himself and Linc is most amusing. He wordlessly exposes his ill gotten merchandise, revealing his technique in the process. The humor with which they combatively exchange comments on one another's sexual exploits and behaviors is scatological. Suffice it to say that when Booth mentions “amazing Grace,” he is not referring to America’s hymn. However, it becomes ever more apparent as the play lengthens that the brothers are in competition in every area of their lives. On a deep seated level, the ego of each pathetically under-reaching brother is closely linked to being top dog in relation to the other.

Suzan-Lori Parks, abetted by director Eric Ruffin, effectively conveys the view that an uncaring white America has consigned the brothers (our protagonists as well as those who comprise the black underclass) to a life of limited vision, dead end lifestyles, and misdirected animosity, making them a threat to one another. At one time or another, one brother may see himself as the top dog or under dog in relation to his brother. Parks’ sad truth is that there are only under dogs on this terrain.

Not all of Parks’ poetic conceits pay off. In fact, one central device is terribly counterproductive. I refer to her naming of the two brothers. At one point, when Booth questions his older brother as to the reason why they were given the names of the 16th President and his assassin, Linc tells him that it was “Daddy’s idea of a joke.” However, that is not an answer acceptable to an analytic playgoer. “Why has Ms. Parks so named them?” remains the question. It may be as has been stated elsewhere that Ms. Parks’ is saying that one’s identity becomes one’s destiny. However, in 2002, it led this playgoer down the garden path of wasting most of the evening seeking the manner in which Parks’ brothers were like their namesakes, individually and in their relationship. However, except in the manner in which the identification telegraphs Parks’ punch line, nothing about their historic namesakes sheds any light on the Topdog/Underdog protagonists. The distraction of the search had the effect of reducing my awareness of the considerable virtues of the play.

Shane Taylor provides an interesting and effective take on Linc. Initially, Taylor portrays him as a kind of modern day Stepin Fetchit. The painted-in-whiteface Linc is satisfied to work in a menial job for a reduced black man’s salary. Here, there is a benumbed quality to everything that he does, and his entire demeanor conveys subservience. When Linc reverts to his dangerous and disreputable former lifestyle, Taylor conveys, in measured increments, an edgier, more alive persona.

Jamahl Marsh subtly and powerfully delineates Booth’s increasing anger and tension. Marsh’s evolving demeanor provides clues to prepare us for the revelations which Parks has in store for us. His performance makes these events feel organic and believable.

Director Eric Ruffin has staged the entire play with a clarity and naturalness which make it convincing and fully accessible. There is a verisimilitude in the performances which finds the reality at the heart of Parks’ rough poetry, enhancing our involvement in the play.

Larry W. Brown’s scenic design is exceptional. Within the cleverly reduced playing area (Luna Stage ambitiously reconfigures its space for each of its productions), both the realistic and poetic sides of the play are fully reflected. The tired furnishings and claustrophobic nature of a rooming house are oppressively omnipresent, yet the back wall with its small patches of remaining wallpapers has a lovely painterly quality. The free standing, artfully designed ceiling level molding adds to both the closed-in oppressiveness of the room and the feel of artists at work. Jill Nagle’s lighting completes the strong visual element of this production. Leslie Fuhs Allen has provided appropriate costume throughout. The “boosted” clothing is particularly evocative. It sure could pass for the real thing.

The savagely humorous and angry pen of playwright Parks provides all the fireworks. By tamping down the angry histrionics, Director Eric Ruffin has found an increased humanity in her most accessible play. His naturalistic approach to Topdog/Underdog reveals levels of humanity in Parks’ angry vision that are often not readily discernible.

Topdog/Underdog continues performances through May 22 (Thurs. @ 7:30 PM; Fri. & Sat. 8 PM; Sun @ 2 PM) at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973—744-3309; online www.lunastage.org

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by Eric Ruffin

Cast
Booth .......... Jamahl Marsh
Lincoln .......... Shane Taylor


Photo: EJ Carr


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- Bob Rendell



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