Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Emilo Sosa. Lighting design by Scott Zielinski. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def.
Star power drove Suzan-Lori Parks's new play Topdog/Underdog when it opened last summer at the Public Theater. It starred Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright as two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, crammed together in a tiny apartment with little more than years of unspoken resentment and a three card monte game as company.
Now that the show has arrived on Broadway at the Ambassador Theatre, the star wattage has changed with the replacement of Cheadle by rapper Mos Def making his Broadway debut. The brilliance of the two performances as taken together may be less, but even that can't prevent the play from being a more fulfilling experience uptown.
As the younger brother Booth, who longs for Lincoln's three card monte talents, Mos Def brings to the show a sort of street authenticity and a youthful enthusiasm that was missing when Cheadle played the role. There are a few times when Def makes arm or body movements that seem utterly in keeping with what one may find in a rap concert, and it works for the character as far it goes.
Not that it goes far. Def has great difficulty to negotiating the character and plot almost-developments that must push the story forward. When he is alone onstage, he comes across as a deer in the headlights, working too hard at remembering his lines and not hard enough at remembering what Booth is doing or who he is. Without an oily yet likable undercurrent (present in Cheadle's performance), it's harder to believe Def could ever be a successful three card monte dealer, which dilutes one of the few vital elements of the plot.
This has the benefit of making Wright look even better. Overshadowed Off-Broadway by Cheadle in his showier role, Wright here is the unquestionable star, making his Lincoln the show's emotional and dramatic center. Wright carries this extra weight with grace and style, and finally making Lincoln almost compelling enough for us, like Booth, to admire his grace and skill with the cards.
Topdog/Underdog on Broadway is not at first glance substantially different from the production at the Public. George C. Wolfe's direction is much the same, bringing out what's required in the script but little more; Riccardo Hernandez's run-down set is equally as effective here; Scott Zielinski's lighting and Emilio Sosa's costumes establish the atmosphere nicely.
Parks's script has also changed very little (if any) since the show was at the Public, it remains as unbelievable and dramatically lackluster here as it was there. Was the concept of a black man wearing white makeup and dressing up as Lincoln solely for the purpose of being shot at an arcade really necessary for this story?
When the play works at all, it's on the strength of the performers, not of the writing, which often attempts to be more profound than it is. There are long-held resentments between Booth and Lincoln, but they aren't really what the play is about, assuming it's supposed to be about much other than the characters' names; most of Topdog's Underdog dramatic suspense comes not from events that occur in it, but from wondering whether Booth shoot Lincoln or Lincoln will shoot Booth.
In spite of the script's inherent weaknesses, none of which have really been addressed in the move uptown, the play itself comes across much better on Broadway. On the wide stage of the Ambassador, Hernandez's apartment set juts out from a sea of infinite black, itself a thrust in a world of proscenium openings, further highlighting the isolation Parks wants to impart to her characters. In the Public's thrust Anspacher Theater, the play tried to be a part of reality, something the script fought wildly against.
Now, with most of the remaining ties to reality severed, it's easier to accept Topdog/Underdog as fantasy, a presentation of what could be, but obviously is not. That's all the show needed, and now that it has it, Topdog/Underdog is almost an enjoyable evening at the theatre.