Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

ion Theatre Company

Laurence Brown and
Mark Christopher Lawrence

Topdog/Underdog is an old story, as old as Cain and Abel, as old as Tom ("Mom loved you best") and Dick Smothers, as old as two of Sam Shepard's brothers dueling out their sibling rivalries and commenting simultaneously on the state of the American Dream. What made Suzan-Lori Parks' version of it a Pulitzer Prize winner has a lot to do with all of these things, many of which aren't overtly in the script.

Booth (Laurence Brown) and Lincoln (Mark Christopher Lawrence) are down-on-their luck brothers living together in a New York tenement room. There's no running water, the bathroom's down the hall, and only Lincoln is working right now, as a live target in a shooting arcade, acting as though he's hit at appropriate moments. Booth has few to no job prospects but is trying to learn the ropes of playing three-card monte on the streets. Lincoln was a past master of this scam, but he's given it up in favor of earning a legal living.

Given the character names, you have a pretty good idea of how the play will end from the first scene. What's fascinating is watching the interactions of the two brothers and judging the extent to which the play is about the state of the African-American male around the turn of the 21st century. For these two, parents have abandoned them, they have few usable skills and only street smarts, such as they are, to keep them going. Any of the common elements of the American Dream (marriage, family, home, job that pays well enough to support the above) seem mostly unavailable to them. Instead, the two have substituted their own dreams, however out of touch with reality they may be.

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg's production at ion Theatre, running through May 12, seems to get all of this, but what it gets first and foremost is the ever-shifting relational dynamics between the two brothers. Mr. Brown and Mr. Lawrence are well attuned to each other, and the intensity of their scenes rises, falls, and then rises again expertly. We've had a spate of fine performances lately in local theatres, and it is easy to add these two to the list.

Ion's 49-seat L-shaped house is pretty ideal for a one-room hothouse tale such as this one. Brian Redfern's set strikes just the right small chords of hope amidst poverty and despair, and Jason Bieber's lighting emphasizes the natural light and shadows of the setting. Jeannie Galioto's costumes range from realistic to sublimely ridiculous. Nicholas Drashner's sound design mostly uses music to represent a variety of elements of African-American culture. Ms. Parks was in the news several months ago as her revision of the book for a new production of Porgy and Bess was heavily criticized before the production opened on Broadway. Sure enough, "Summertime," one of that show's iconic numbers, turns up in the intermission music rotation.

It may be "still the same old story/a fight for love and glory/a case of do or die," but in these expert hands it becomes two hours well spent in the theatre.

Through May 12, 2012, at the BlkBox Theatre, 6th and Pennsylvania Avenues, in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego. Tickets ($10 - $29) are available by calling (619) 600-5020 or by visiting

ion Theatre Company presents Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg with costume design by Jeannie Galioto, lighting design by Jason Bieber, properties design by Andrea Fields, scenic design by Brian Redfern, and sound design by Nicholas Drashner. Ryan Ford was the stage manager, and Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza produced.

With Laurence Brown (Booth) and Mark Christopher Lawrence (Lincoln).

Photo: Courtesy ion Theatre Company

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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