Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Topdog/Underdog at Seattle Repertory Theatre is a major disappointment. Expert direction by George C. Wolfe and vivid performances by the two-man cast help considerably, but when all is said and done, this is a long-winded and utterly predictable dramatic exercise, and certainly a lesser work in the annals of the Pulitzer prize for drama.
African-American brothers Lincoln and Booth share a shabby one room inner city apartment so small that Lincoln sleeps in a chair. Though Lincoln holds down a meager job playing Abe Lincoln (in white face) in an arcade where people pay to assassinate him, he is also a past master of the three-card monte card game hustle. Booth is less industrious, a petty thief who can't even touch his brother's way with the cards, and is in the midst of an unraveling romance. Though Parks does lighten the depressing, downward spiral of the pair's lives with some welcome humor, her play is for the most part a turgid, derivative drama that has few surprises up its sleeve.
Director Wolfe elicits passionate, playful and enormously energized performances from Harold Perrineau as Lincoln and Larry Gilliard, Jr. as Booth. Perrineau is simply electric throughout, and dazzles with his utterly natural looking sleight of hand in the card hustling scenes. Gilliard, Jr. is equally riveting as the slower witted but ultimately more dangerous Booth, hitting just the right levels of comedy and pathos. The pair is totally convincing as siblings and are enormously effective in the better-written moments when Parks' script has them talking about their relationship with and abandonment by their parents.
I would remiss not to acknowledge Ricardo Hernandez' impressive scenic design, which seems to have been lifted right out of an actual tenement. It complements the play, rather than calling overt attention to itself, as has been the case in one too many Seattle Rep shows. Scott Zielinski's flashy lighting design complements the set masterfully.
Top Dog/Underdog runs through September 27 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer Street at Seattle Center. For more information visit the Rep's website at www.seattlerep.org.