Three-card monte is a street con-game that involves rapidly moving cards, an insider conspiracy, a constant patter of hustle, and a superficial energy that covers some serious danger and some serious damage.
Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog" is a brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning drama that uses the same structure, the same dynamics, set to the same rhythms, to examine two brothers locked in a lethal relationship. It's a relationship that has all the trivial intricacy of a simple game, and all the terrible depth of a tragedy.
In this West Coast premiere, masterfully directed by George C. Wolfe, two excellent actors take us into a world where everything is rigged, where integrity is a soul-stealing compromise, and where everyone is abandoned by whomever they love. The playwright has an extraordinary ear for musical language, and an astonishing, distinctive ability to create images that are disturbing, resonant and vivid. Confined in Riccardo Hernandez's bleak and beautifully realized set, with evocative lighting by Scott Zielinski and an insistent sound design by Dan Moses Schrier, this small world inhabited by these two small men somehow takes us to very large questions. This is a writer who brings deep meaning to familiar relationships, embodies metaphor in realism, in familiar personal failings, and in familiar social presumptions. As a result, even the predictability of the story becomes something more like the inevitability of classical tragedy, evoking a fear and pity rare on the contemporary stage. And that is accomplished while filling the action with light comedic conflict, bright dialogue and genuinely funny business.
The two brothers, left with a $500 inheritance when they were abandoned by their parents as children, now share this dreary flat. They were named Booth and Lincoln (a joke, their Dad explained) and Booth is desperate to learn the three-card monte skill and scam that Lincoln abandoned after his accomplice was murdered. Lincoln has gone straight, taking a "good" job. He works in an arcade, puts on white-face and a costume to sit in the dark, impersonating Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre, so rubes can come in and pretend to assassinate him again and again. That image, that idea, is disturbing and ridiculous enough, but it grows even stronger later, when harsh front-lighting casts his stovepipe hat shadow high on the wall, and just as we think nothing could be more dehumanizing, more degrading, he loses the job to a wax mannequin. Everything in this play has that kind of multi-layered, never simple or easily explicated dimensionality. The actors animate and embody all of those ideas in personalities that are both distinctive and familiar, and in a relationship that always feels true; often more true than the circumstances or the world they live in.
As Booth, Larry Gilliard, Jr. is pure energy, constantly in motion and so filled with posture and attitude and complete insecurity that we're never sure we're seeing a single authentic moment. Yet it is Lincoln, the impressive Harold Perrineau, who is the professional imposter, who recognizes, as he sleeps in the recliner chair that is the bed he's made, that countless strangers stand behind him in the dark, waiting to fire. Mr. Perrineau has just enough gravity to convince us that he understands the lethal nature of the world, and that he brings home his paycheck so that Booth can sleep in the real bed, can imagine a woman he knows is a girlfriend, and have other imaginary girlfriends in magazines, and so that he can protect his brother from killing realities. Not that it's possible. Not that Booth has any desire to be protected.
We know the course of the action from the moment the names are introduced, but "Topdog/Underdog" is about much more than what happens next, what leads to what, why a point is arrived at, who feels what about whom. It is about the entire complex of race and history and society and individuals who have to abandon meaning in order to survive, and have to fight a constant battle to retain anything like pride. It's about wanting and never feeling satisfied, about acquiring and then realizing it's unwanted, about being connected and being abandoned, and about who is playing the cards, and who is playing the player.
Of course, it's really only about two brothers, who have problems with each other, and how it ends badly. By making it echo so much more, "Topdog/Underdog" is riveting, audacious and thrilling theatre, and Suzan-Lori Parks is a writer with a very important voice.
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