Also see Kevin's review of Six Degrees of Separation
Before Nilo Cruz came to Pulitzer Prize prominence, Suzan-Lori Parks was the It factor in 2002. Topdog/Underdog was originally produced at the New York Shakespeare Festival and starred Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright with George C. Wolfe directing. Its Broadway transfer to the Ambassador Theatre had rapper Mos Def replacing Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright reprising. The Broadway run closed after 578 performances, but left a mark as one of the most talked about shows of the year.
So I was psyched when Mosaic Theatre announced they were bringing Topdog/Underdog to South Florida. Plays like this are usually acquired by bigger-budgeted regional houses like GableStage in Miami, but in three years of its young existence, Richard Simon’s company has created a niche for themselves in Plantation, presenting thought-provoking, serious and ambitious material that Broward County needs in order to compete with their Dade and Palm Beach contemporaries.
I do admit to being skeptical of the casting of John Archie and James Randolph as the troubled brothers - not regarding their ability to play the parts (they are award-winning actors), but I was concerned about their age. Archie and Randolph are older than the characters are supposed to be. My skepticism is now laid to rest; these veteran actors make the characters believable no matter what age bracket is required.
Topdog/Underdog is the Cain and Abel story, set in present day New York. Named by their father as a joke, Booth (played by Randolph) and Lincoln (played by Archie) share a rundown apartment. We see Booth trying to learn a three-card hustle that his older brother used in his heyday. Lincoln has a steady job impersonating who else but our 16th US president at an arcade where he gets “assassinated” by customers. Booth has big dreams; he brags about his relationship with his girlfriend while shoplifting from department stores to get by. His main goal is to learn the tricks of the “three-card monte” trade from Lincoln, so he can get his hands on some real money. Lincoln, on the other hand, is resigned to his present state. He no longer feels the urge to swindle people on the street, so he continues to decline Booth’s overtures to lure him back into hustling. We see Booth trying tactic after tactic to draw Lincoln back to the dark side, but to no avail. The first act closes with a powerful monologue in which Lincoln reveals why he stopped playing “three card monte,” but then we see him resembling Frodo’s dilemma in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by slipping out that old deck of cards and playing a game while Booth lurks in the shadows.
Parks’ story goes beyond sibling rivalry. This comedic tragedy focuses on two men who have different wants in life. Lincoln and Booth may have a few things in common, but each has an eye on a different prize. For Lincoln, it is to look for the finer things in life. For Booth, it is to grab what can be gotten. The younger sibling always wants what the elder has or had and, even though they are joined together by love and hate, ambition and greed, triumph and torture, it is their rivalry that will eventually drive them apart forever.
John Archie and James Randolph have great chemistry. They go back and forth at each other like two titans in a boxing match or two old friends doing a tap dance together. Their pace never drags as the expletives go flying. Archie gives a deep, commanding performance as Lincoln. Through Archie, we see Lincoln as torn between a stable, demeaning workingman and a legendary hustler who is thirsty for the rush once more. Randolph brings fire to his portrayal of Booth. The character chooses his tactics wisely as he slowly persuades his older brother to come back to the game, but we also see in Randolph’s eyes and body language, Booth’s jealousy of the talents Lincoln still has. Richard Simon chose the right actors to guide Parks’ dialogue to a climatic finish.
David Sherman’s effective set design starts from the lobby and continues all the way onto the stage, while Travis Neff’s mood lighting comes in and out at appropriate times. Meredith Lasher is still the best kept secret in costuming, and she proves it by giving the brothers both simple day clothes with solid colors and snazzy formal wear.
Mosaic boasted award-winning talent in their marketing campaign for this play. With a team like Randolph and Archie on stage, and Simon, Sherman, Neff and Lasher in the background, they are out to prove that this is theatre which should not be missed.
Topdog/Underdog plays through February 8th at American Heritage Center for the Arts, 12200 W. Broward Boulevard, Plantation. For more information, please call (954) 577-8243 or www.Mosaictheatre.com.
MOSAIC THEATRE - Topdog/Underdog
Stage Manager - Betsy Paull-Rick
Scenic Design: David Sherman
Starring John Archie* and James Randolph*
*-denotes members of Actor’s Equity Association
-- Kevin Johnson