Seen in its first performances in 2001/2002 (and winning the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), Topdog/Underdog, deservedly, caused quite a stir (Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle starring in the initial run of the gritty two-hander).
A decade later, coming now in the wake of the Vancouver and UK riots, Suzan-Lori Parks’ play produces moments of unintended unease (the nervous laughter from the predominantly white crowd being a dead giveaway) and the political correctness of “modern” theatre-going (the de rigeur warning in the lobby that there will be a gunshot) robs those unfamiliar with the script of what—ten years back—would have been a more pivotal, shocking moment.
The story concerns two brothers who share the same “seedily furnished rooming house room.” Just five years apart, Lincoln (Nigel Shawn Williams) and Booth (Kevin Hanchard) eke out a living in the public eye. The former dons white face, fake beard and top hat then dies several times daily for arcade patrons wanting to take their own shot at Honest Abe for a fee. Three-card Monte is the game of choice and cash for the latter, employing fascinating rhythm in his mesmerizing banter which far more often than not leaves the mark puzzled and poorer.
Their long-off-the-scene parents’ naming their boys after the iconic president and his assassin (the fact that the murder took place in a theatre becomes, unintentionally, the third nail in the 21st century’s coffin of spoiler most foul) is designed to fill the plate of irony but inevitable comparisons with their namesakes’ character and motivations in the current climate of rampant hooliganism decidedly lessens the impact of the climax.
Desperately re-seeking the carnal delights of Grace (unseen, but an action/reaction driver), Booth—between second-best masturbation sessions stimulated by dozens of porn magazines conveniently within reach under his bed—finally gets his wish for a very private dinner. In order to appear to be as successful with his other fast-hand vocation as he hopes to be between the sheets, the randy con artist boosts some fine threads for himself and his brother. More laughs—just a few uncertain—from the audience, yet it’s here where the present-day images of wanton thievery tarnish whatever empathy Parks has tried to infuse into the younger of the pair.
Hanchard brings a marvellously Sportin’ Life demeanour to the part, yet needs to dig a little deeper into the inner-angst bin to allow his final scenes to sear as intended. Williams’ Lincoln is a bravura turn that readily covers the emotionally rich landscape from humiliating resignation to near mania even as his prowess with the cards is unalterably brought to bear when there’s money on the table.
Director Philip Akin (ably assisted by Camellia Koo’s set—the jigsaw puzzle-like, deteriorating parquet floor an especially effective metaphor for things coming apart) has crafted a steadily moving show that does its level best with the material. Yet when all is said, done and shot it’s left to wonder if the renaming of these two men might produce a more telling effect in 2011. JWR