by Mike Hoban
‘Topdog/Underdog’ – Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Billy Porter; Scenic and Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston through April 9.
In “Topdog/Underdog” the Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomic drama now being staged by the Huntington Theatre, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks gives us a front row seat into the lives of two damaged brothers alternately chasing/escaping a warped version of the American dream – one that is exclusively reserved for those on the lower rungs of society’s ladder. The vehicle for that dream happens to be “Three-card Monte”, a sucker’s game played by street hustlers in large American cities, but the allure of the fast-money-for-little-work scheme could be applied to any number of similar cons (drug-dealing, prostitution) embraced by those growing up in economically-distressed urban environments. And while the play focuses solely on the interplay between the troubled pair in this intense two-hander, the parents who abandoned them, as well as the love interest of one of the men, loom as large players in this raw and explosive work.
When the play opens, we meet Booth (named after Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, we later discover), an African-American hip-hop caricature in his 20’s perfecting his Three-card Monte rap to a crowd of invisible “marks” in his crummy one room apartment. While he’s entertaining, we get the sense that he’s likely not practiced enough to be able to win the confidence of those he would seek to fleece. In walks Abraham Lincoln, or at least an approximation of him, as this “Abe” is a tall, lanky black man in “whiteface” pancake makeup. It turns out to be Booth’s brother, Lincoln, who works in an arcade where patrons can pay to role play as John Wilkes Booth and “assassinate” him. As bizarre as that sounds, it’s a $10 dollar an hour job that allows him to pay the rent on the brother’s apartment and still have enough left over for a few survival items, including Lincoln’s daily supply of Jack Daniels.
The men were given their names by their father, as his idea of a joke, because as Lincoln says of his Dad, “He was a drunk, bro. And everything he did was half-f-ed up.“ Lincoln has followed in his father’s footsteps, retreating into the bottle after prematurely retiring from his lucrative job as a Three-card Monte hustler. His retirement came after his friend and business partner Lonnie was gunned down in the street by one of their unhappy marks – right after they had gamed him out of a large sum of money. Linc has also been thrown out by his wife, which is the reason he’s forced to sleep in a recliner in his brother’s apartment.
Meanwhile, Booth spends his time pining over Grace, a woman that he may or may not be romantically entangled with. He also supports himself as a shoplifter, a skill for which he has a much greater aptitude than as a Three-card dealer. Booth wants his brother to teach him the craft, but Lincoln resists not only because he doesn’t feel his Booth doesn’t have the necessary temperament, but he lives in fear of ending up like his pal Lonnie if he goes back to the trade himself. But as outside pressures mount on the men, the allure of the quick buck begins to make the fear of consequences fade.
The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, beginning with the idea of not only the two characters being named Lincoln and Booth, but that Linc earns his living by letting patrons at the arcade shoot him from behind with a cap gun. But anyone who saw Parks’ “When Father Came Home From the Wars, Parts 1,2, and 3)” at the ART a few years back (where a talking dog narrates much of one of the segments), knows that she mixes the fantastical with the literal, and it doesn’t always work for everyone. But there’s a real poetry to Parks’ writing (particularly in Linc’s booze-fueled monologues), and her narrative, particularly around the dead-end existence spawned by poverty and the matter-of-fact alcoholic hopelessness, has a kind of Raymond Carver feel to it – only with inner city black folks instead suburban whites. But it’s not overly bleak; in fact, Parks somehow manages to make abject poverty pretty damn funny without undermining the sense of despair in the play.
Director Billy Porter elicits solid performances from his actors, and his background as a musical and comedy director (both of which were on display with the terrific “Colored Museum” at the Huntington in 2015) is evident in a scene where Booth shows off his shoplifting wares as he dances to a cool hip hop number. As Booth, Matthew J. Harris has the difficult job of portraying a character who is trying to project the image that he has game (but clearly doesn’t), and he does a nice job conveying the insecurity behind Booth’s braggadocio. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson gives a wonderfully layered performance as Lincoln, who despite his intelligence and sage-like qualities, still can’t pull it together to make something of his life.
The set design by Clint Ramos (who also did costumes), is reflective of Parks’ writing, with the early 20th century apartment – with beautiful old fashioned tin ceilings and dried out water-damaged wallpaper peeling from the walls – contrasting with what looks to be medieval castle pike barriers jutting menacingly into the audience. This is a violent and disturbing piece of work that examines the lives of wounded men, but also does so with compassion, and is well worth seeing by all but the overly literal minded. For more info, go to: www.huntingtontheatre.org