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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Topdog/Underdog Reveals Multiple Facets in
Exemplary Two River Revival

Also see Bob's review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Brandon J. Dirden and
Jason Dirden

The Two River Theatre's powerful revival of Suzan-Lori Parks' remarkable 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play Topdog/Underdog has the distinction of being the play's first production to be directed by its author.

Topdog/Underdog recounts a few fateful days in the lives of two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth. Its setting is their shared, dilapidated room in a crumbling rooming house. It has no running water, and the bathroom is down the hall.

Lincoln has been thrown out by his wife and moved into his younger brother Booth's place. Lincoln is an accomplished three card monte hustler. However, long ago, he gave up this lucrative, but dicey, swindle. For the past eight months, he has been employed at a beach arcade shooting gallery portraying (in whiteface make-up) Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre on the night of his assassination ("sit down job with benefits"). Booth is a skilled shoplifter. Despite lacking a sufficient skill set, it is his ambition to acquire Lincoln's three card monte dealer skills.

The interplay between the brothers is often rife with humor. The scene in which Booth returns to their room with suits and ties which he has "boosted" for himself and Lincoln is most amusing. Booth wordlessly displays his stolen merchandise, demonstrating his techniques in the process. The humor with which they exchange combative barbs on one another's dating and sexual behaviors is scatological. When Booth describes "amazing Grace," he is not making reference to America's hymn. It becomes increasingly apparent as the play progresses that the brothers are in hostile competition in every area of their lives. On a deep rooted level, the ego of each pathetically under-reaching brother is closely linked to being top dog in relation to the other. This is particularly true for more hapless Booth.

The performances of real life brothers Brandon J. Dirden (Lincoln) and Jason Dirden (Booth) fully capture the passion and pain of the play's antagonistic, troubled siblings. Brandon Dirden's Lincoln delicately walks the line between a man who has made peace with his life and one who has given up on it. Jason Dirden's Booth, bitterly unhappy with himself and his life and lacking in good judgment, is a powder keg always ready to explode. They create remarkable tension as Topdog/Underdog careens to its conclusion.

Author Suzan-Lori Parks has provided so much to chew upon in Topdog/Underdog that it would be wrong to attempt to narrowly pigeonhole its emotional and intellectual underpinnings. Although the play clearly condemns the deep pain and harm that racism (past and present) in American society has caused, there is a universal humanism present here that transcends race, as Lincoln and Booth veer from their true selves to survive, and makes Lincoln and Booth vessels for the pain of all humanity. The meaning that is to be derived from the employment of the names Lincoln and Booth is that these prominent names represent white Americans who, along with African Americans, are part of a suffering humanity struggling against the stacked deck, no way out alive game of life. Still, the cesspool of a room where the brothers struggle through their tortured lives is likely a stand-in for the less than good old USA.

I once thought that Topdog/ Underdog to be a very angry play. However, as directed by the author in 2012, it now seems to be etched more in sadness and regret than in anger. What is most remarkable about Parks' direction is that it is able to fully expose and exploit all of her play's swirling and conflicting currents. Thus, each viewer is able to evaluate and either embrace or reject each of them.

Topdog/Underdog is as intellectually stimulating as it is emotionally and dramatically so. If you like meat on the bones of the plays that you attend, see it and draw your own conclusions.

Topdog/Underdog continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7:00PM; Thursday-Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Wednesday 1 PM/ Saturday - Sunday 3 PM) through September 30, 2012, at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online:

Topdog/Underdog written and directed by Suzan-Lori Parks

Lincoln………Brandon J. Dirden
Booth…………......Jason Dirden

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell