Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 20, 2022
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Sound design by Justin Ellington. Vocal coach Kate Wilson. Associate director Ioana Alfonso.
Few writers manage with such consistent skill the variety of works Parks has produced about Black lives and experiences, ranging in content from historic to biographic to literary to contemporary issues, and with writing styles that encompass everything from the most abstract (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka the Negro Book of the Dead) to the most linearly plotted (my favorite, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3). She is equally adroit with absurdity, comedy, satire and tragedy; at times she even writes music that she incorporates into her plays. It should come as no surprise to learn that she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant."
Topdog/Underdog aligns more closely with the linearly plotted as it relates the often disarmingly funny but ultimately tragic tale of two adult brothers who are running as fast as they can against the encroaching and inevitable ending to their story. They are called Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) and Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), names that were bestowed upon them by a father with a quirky if possibly prescient sense of humor.
The men, both in their 30s, are living for the time being in Booth's seedy one-room cold water flat (there is a sink, but no actual running water, and the bathroom is a shared one down the hall). Generally, Booth lives there alone, but he has taken in his big brother on a temporary basis after Lincoln's wife has thrown him out. Booth has long looked up to Lincoln, three years his senior, especially after both their parents abandoned them while they were still teenagers. The men have long histories as street hustlers, though it is Lincoln's mastery of the con game known as three-card monte that marks Booth's own great ambition. The very first scene of the play shows Booth alone in the room practicing the patter and moves of the game that he hopes will lead to fortune and the high life.
The role of Booth is the more flamboyant one, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a charismatic and riveting performer, excitedly showing off his character's skills as a first-class shoplifter, and sharing his dream of being a future three-card monte artiste and ladies' man par excellence. Right now, the lady he has in his sights is Grace, who he expects will fall under his flashy spell at any moment. But waiting for Grace (or, if you want to get metaphoric, for grace) is tantamount to waiting for Godot.
So here you have it. Two men in a tight space (perfectly captured in Arnulfo Maldonado's scenic design), with two hours and twenty minutes of playing time. This is where the actors' strengths, Kenny Leon's keen direction, and Parks' brilliance as a writer coalesce. Every moment is filled with dialog and actions that convey layers of meaning with every word, every joke, every gesture, every bit of sexual boasting and competitiveness. How tightly connected are these men, really? What is their history together and apart? Who truly is the "top dog" here as Lincoln and Booth carry out their gradually intensifying totentanz, their danse macabre, that moves them to the play's stunningly sad conclusion? Topdog/Underdog manages to be both solidly realistic and as mythic as the story of the characters' historic namesakes that has long been embedded in the American consciousness.