Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins in Topdog/Underdog. Photo: Marc J.
Review by Julia Polinsky
the story of two brothers -- Black men -- endlessly vacillating between
contempt and admiration for each other; affection and anger; conflict and
cooperation; who’s winning, who’s losing. Named for an American president and
his assassin, brothers Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) and Booth (Yaya Abdul-Mateen
II), are caught in the short end of American history.
The play opens with Booth practicing his inept 3-card monte skills
and pathetic patter. Lincoln, in whiteface, beard, stovepipe hat and frock
coat, enters behind him, watching him practice until Booth senses he’s there.
That starts the roller coaster of lying, trash talking interactions between the
two; over the course of the next two hours, that talk ranges over family
inheritance, parental abandonment, failure or success with women, and the
street tough’s cynical view of everyone as a mark. Talk, talk, talk. Yet not an
honest word is spoken by Lincoln; no truth comes from Booth. How could
Each has his way of getting by. Lincoln has so-called “honest
work,” preposterously posing as Abraham Lincoln in an arcade, a target for
people to pretend to shoot — a creepy, sick improbability that gets weirder as
the play goes on. We don’t find out until later that he himself was a very successful
3-card monte hustler who left the game after a colleague died.
Hawkins in Topdog/Underdog. Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Booth aspires to be a 3-card monte street hustler as a step up
from shoplifting, which seems to be his only skill — and what a skill it is, on
full display in the masterful scene when Booth enters the room in a huge puffy
coat, then removes his coat, to reveal two full men’s suits and oodles of other
clothing concealed under it; he has stolen “generously,” to hear him say it.
“Generously” is a great word, here; he stole for his brother, not just himself:
an act of kindness? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog Photo: Marc J.
These two characters lie, cheat, steal, hurt themselves and each
other, just to survive. They fantasize about a golden childhood, but know their
parents cheated on each other and abandoned them. They talk of their women, but
deep down know they’re unlovable. The “inheritance” each got from a parent has
been his only stake in life. Lincoln’s is long spent; Booth has saved his,
ready to bet it all on the future, with huge consequences.
Kenny Leon’s direction feels completely natural, as if every
moment were inevitable as it grows out of the one before. Dede Ayite’s knockout
costume design epitomizes costume as character – the boosted suits are all that
and then some. Arnulfo Maldonado’s superb scenic design shows us a grimy,
shabby room in what seems to be a SRO residence; surrounding and framing this
grimness is miles and miles of lush drapery, a visual nod to the
Victorian-style curtaining of the Ford’s Theater, where the original Booth
assassinated the original Lincoln.
Surely doctoral dissertations have been written about the layers
of meaning that can be peeled off this play. It’s been called the best play of
the last 25 years, but that hyperbole doesn’t hold up. Topdog/Underdog is
emotionally wrenching and bleak as hell, but also feels repetitive and padded.
Basically, nothing much happens — until it does, in a late-play rush.
Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog. Photo: Marc J.
It would have been tighter and cleaner as a one-act, but Topdog/Underdog is
important drama, and important drama sometimes gets inflated to fit into big
theaters, not always wisely. How many scenes of Booth trying to polish his
3-card skills do we need? How often does Lincoln need to talk about what it’s
like to be a Black man playing the Great Emancipator in whiteface, being “shot”
day after day, and calling it honest work? Less, in this case, would have
been more. But please, not less from the two stars; their extraordinary,
scintillating performances take the breath away.
Lean in. Watch close. If you pay close attention to Suzan-Lori
Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, you’ll
probably catch the con — which is Parks’s magnificent take on life Here and
Now: we sell ourselves our own delusion until it destroys us. We switch the
cards, poorly or well, yet we’re also the marks who bet against life. Life is
the house, and the house always wins.
W. 45th St.
York, NY 10036
Tickets $69-240 at Telecharge:
Running time 2:20, one intermission
November 8-20: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, at 7pm
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm
Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm
Sundays at 3pm
November 22-27: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 7pm
Saturday at 8pm
Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Sunday at 2pm