Topdog/Underdog is a Provocative Drama
Also see Richard's review of Thursday
Suzan-Lori Park's Pulitzer Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog has arrived at the Curran Theatre for a limited run as part of the Best of Broadway series. This restaged Seattle co-production has Harold Perrineau and Larry Gilliard Jr. taking the roles of brothers Lincoln and Booth, haunted by their past and forced to face the crushing realism of their future. Admittedly, this production has lost some of the spark of the original New York production which I saw at the Ambassador Theatre last year with Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def giving superlative performances. It was one of the best plays I saw in 2002.
Topdog is about a pair of brothers living in a sleazy rooming house in the upper 150s of Manhattan. Their parents named them Lincoln and Booth purely as a joke and abandoned them when they were 16 and 11. Now they live in the seedy room like two panthers in a cage. Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), the elder, was a master hustler in a three card monte scam where he used to make $1000 a day until someone shot his partner. Now he is trying to go straight. Lincoln takes the job of impersonating Abraham Lincoln in an amusement arcade where persons get to assassinate him with toy guns. This part does seem preposterous in reality, but it is significant to the play itself. Booth (Larry Gilliard Jr.), the uneducated "baby brother," is unemployed and he wants Lincoln to go back into the lucrative three card monte game since they are barely getting by on his meager pay check. There is friendly but silently laden tension between the two men that leads to an exciting climax.
Perrineau and Gilliard are good actors, but there is no electric charisma between them in many of the scenes in the first act. They also appear to be rushing their lines in that act. The street talk of Gilliard is so rapid that much of his conversation is inaudible. Both seem to be acting solo; occasionally they interact with each other, especially in the dinner piece in the first act and the terrifying scene at the end of the two act drama.
Harold Perrineau (narrator in HBO's Oz, Mercutio in Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, stage credits including Avenue X) has one of the best trained voices in film and theater, but he occasionally slips from the accent of a gritty African American man in Manhattan. His brilliant solo non speaking scene of how he works as Lincoln getting assassinated is a comic highlight of the play. Perrineau plays the role differently than Jeffrey Wright, who played it as the charismatic showy role that dominated the drama. Perrineau almost sublimates his character to make Booth more glitzy. However, he takes over the drama with his powerful monologue in the last mesmerizing scene when he says "I'm da Man, I'm da Man."
Larry Gilliard Jr. (mostly film roles such as Gangs of New York and The Water Boy) has problems projecting in the first act - probably the fault of the sound system. However, the actor goes over the top at the start of show and he becomes a comic caricature of a man who smashes peoples' lives. His acting is tempered in the second act when he maintains most of the character's sinister and evasive power. Gilliard stands out in several solo scenes: the "dance of disrobement" where he takes off two complete layers of clothing that he stole from a store, his wonderful vaudevillian song routine celebrating Lincoln's payday, and the dramatic scene when he tells about his abandonment by the mother toward the end of the play.
Riccardo Hernandez's stark set is a copy of the original at the Ambassador: a small, claustrophobic, rundown room with peeling wallpaper connected to nothing in the middle of a blackened stage. Lighting by Scott Zielinski is extraordinary, especially in the Lincoln assassination take-off. George Scott's direction is excellent as usual. The actors should be told, however, to slow down in that first act so the audience can grasp the important meanings of the second act. The second act is the meat of the drama.
Topdog/Underdog is a stylish drama, but you don't get the emotional force from the interplay between the two brothers here, especially in the first act. It is a shame that most of the audience could not hear the playwright's sharp vernacular dialogue or the adrenaline-laced bantering between the two brothers in the first act, due to the inferior sound system.
Topdog/Underdog runs through November 16 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained at the box office of both the Curran or the Orpheum Theatre (1192 Market St, SF) or through Ticketmaster at 415-512-7770; at all Ticketmaster ticket centers, and through ticketmaster.com.
Coming up next through Best of Broadway is The Exonerated at the Curran on November 24, Cats at the Orpheum on December 16 and The Lion King at the Orpheum on January 24, 2004.