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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Exciting Production of Topdog/Underdog

Also see Richard's reviews of Beach Blanket Babylon and Hamlet

Topdog/Underdog
Bowman Wright and
Biko Eisen-Martin

This marks the fourth time I have seen Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize winning drama Topdog/Underdog, including the original at the Ambassador Theatre in New York with Mos Def as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln. The Marin Theatre production under the direction of Timothy Douglas is just as good if not better than any I have seen. This version seems more potent—it is an unsettling production, especially in the last scenes. I was very impressed with the acting of Biko Eisen-Martin (Booth) and Bowman Wright (Lincoln), both of whom make the most of the playwright's overpowering, stinging dialogue.

Top Dog/Underdog is about a pair of brothers living in a shabby little rooming house in a big city. Both are in their mid-thirties and struggling to eke out an existence. The older brother, Lincoln, was once a skilled Three-card Monte con-artist. He made $1000 a day until someone shot his partner. Now he is trying to go straight by impersonating Abraham Lincoln in "white-face" makeup in an amusement arcade where patrons get to "assassinate" him with toy guns. This part does seem preposterous in reality but it is significant to the play.

Lincoln's younger brother Booth wants to be a big shot but he spends most of his time shoplifting and awkwardly practicing the art of card hustling. He is a smooth talking, arrogant womanizer who dreams of dazzling the marks in the card scam. The men's father named them Booth and Lincoln as a dismal idea of a joke. The brothers share a complex and very fascinating relationship. They constantly joke and insult each other, but offer support and reassurance. They have had disastrous romantic problems and were abandoned by their parents at an early age. Lincoln has essentially raised Booth.

Booth wants Lincoln to go back into the lucrative card scheme since they are barely getting by on his meager paycheck. Of course, Booth would be Link's partner and he needs the secret of his older brother success. Even with their close kinship, they betray each other and by the play's end, it turns violent. Park's white-knuckle mix of expletive-rich, disjointed dialogue and a careful build of comic, terrifying sibling competition are vividly portrayed.

Biko Eisen-Martin (New York actor, recent graduate of the National Theatre Conservatory) is brilliant in the role of Booth. His jiving is wonderful, especially when he enters the second act wearing all of the clothes that were "boosted" from a department store.

Bowman Wright gives a charismatic performance as Lincoln. He almost sublimates the character to make Booth more glitzy. However, he takes over the drama with his powerful monologue in the last mesmerizing scene.

Mikiko Uesugi's stark set is very similar to the original I saw at the Ambassador and Curran Theatre. It's a small, claustrophobic, run-down room with flaking wallpaper and black and white patriotic bunting hanging on the upper walls of the set. Lighting by Kurt Landisman is extraordinary, adding to the drama of some of the scenes. Timothy Douglas' direction is fast paced.

Topdog/Underdog runs through October 28 at Marin Theatre, 397 Miller Ave. Mill Valley. For tickets call 415-388-5208 or on line at www.marintheatre.org. Coming up next is It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play opening on November 23rd and running through December 16th.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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