Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews


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.
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins.
Theater: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
In 2018, a group of New York Times critics compiled a list of what they considered to be the 25 best American plays since the 1993 Broadway production of Angels in America. Landing in the Number 1 spot was Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog. While I am not certain the play itself would sit at the very top of my personal list, its extraordinarily talented playwright assuredly would, and the solid revival of Topdog/Underdog at the Golden Theatre is a thrilling addition to what is turning out to be a stellar Broadway season.

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.

Corey Hawkins
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Corey Hawkins as Lincoln is the perfect foil for his acting partner, calmer and more understanding of the reality of their lives. Lincoln resists going back to the streets. He knows from sorrowful experience that there are real dangers involved when trying to trick someone out of a large sum of money. Instead, he is currently making a modest living doing what, by any stretch of the imagination, amounts to a strange gig. He works in an arcade portraying his namesake presidential character, wearing whiteface makeup and dressed in a shabby topcoat and stovepipe hat. There he sits all day as customers mock-assassinate him. Weird, but, hey, it's a living. And for now, this is what he and Booth are getting by on financially.

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.