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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 26, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
When "Topdog/Underdog" played earlier this
season at the Public Theater, I suspect it was as much the bravura
theatricality of the performers as it was the wonderfully organic
composition of Suzan Lori Parks’ almost plotless drama that made the
experience not only fun, but also riveting. The play’s success and
extended run at the Public was not only more good news for the Public,
which had recently scored another triumph with "Elaine Stritch
at Liberty," but it allowed for, as it did for Stritch, the play’s
transfer to Broadway.
In `Topdog/Underdog’ Parks, who has been turning out a series of attention-getting
works (some seen at the Public) and runs the playwrighting program
at the California Institute of the Arts, has written a seriously high-strung
but well-grounded tragedy about two emotionally scared and socially
skewed brothers. It is good that Broadway is getting a chance to see
However, it has both lost and gained a little ground in the transfer
uptown. As Lincoln, in the role he played at the Public, Jeffrey Wright
is depending on shouting in full throttle in many scenes and is also
hard to understand when he mumbles. In doing so, he jeopardizes the
reality of the small world he shares with his younger brother. Nevertheless,
Wright’s performance still delivers the desperation and the dynamics
of a man wasted by life and who drifts between comical denial and
Rap star Mos Def makes a memorable Broadway debut in the role previously
played excellently by Don Cheadle. Mos Def is astonishing and effective
as Booth, the infinitely less talented but more volatile younger brother.
That’s right they are Lincoln and Booth, their namesakes being an
apparent joke played on them by their parents, both of whom have long
ago deserted them and about whom much of the recriminating reminiscences
Caught in a downward spiral of poverty and sibling rivalry,
the brothers share a wary relationship and a tentative existence in
a squalid rooming house (designed by Riccardo Hernandez to express
the last word in dingy peeling-walls decor).
Lincoln has a low-paying job in an arcade. There, in white face make-up,
pasted-on beard, stove-pipe hat and long black overcoat, he sits all
day in a booth as President Lincoln ready to fall over dead, as tourists,
pretending they are John Wilkes Booth, take pot shots at him. If Lincoln
is past his glory days (the reasons for which I won’t disclose) as
the big moneymaking kingpin of a three-card monte gang, he, nevertheless,
brings home the paycheck and the take-out Chinese food. Booth spends
his days shoplifting. In the play’s funniest scene, Booth arrives
home and begins to peal off one piece of clothing after another until
he has shed two complete suits — he always thinks of his brother
— and accessories. At night, however, he is ever trying to improve
(in vain) his technique with the cards with its accompanying fast-talk.
This, so that he too can rise to the level of his brother as a big
time con artist.
Despite Lincoln’s humiliating day job, one that he is likely to lose
to a mannequin, and his nightly escapes into a drunken stupor, Booth
relentlessly badgers Lincoln to be his mentor, even as he baits him
and blames him for his own failures. Unable and unwilling to face
the fact that he is a klutz, Booth also maintains an active fantasy
sex life, one that also includes a presumably real relationship with
a girlfriend (not seen). This is played out with humor and a touch
of poignancy in a scene in which Booth sets a shabby table with candles
and linen napkins folded to stand erect. Def, a hip-hop recording
star, is making a memorable Broadway debut.
Although "Topdog/Underdog" is directed by George C. Wolfe
with the expert precision and timing of a musical composition, much
of the play is exposition in which their childhood with irresponsible
parents and their own bonds and jealousies surface. Occasionally,
one gets the feeling that the play and players are driven as much
by the sound of their rhythmic jazzy speech patterns as it is by what
they have to say to each other. Up to its tragic resolution, the second
half is more inclined to beguile us with expectancy, action, tension,
and body language. However perilously close to audience pandering
the acting sometimes gets, there remains the feeling that you are
seeing two actors scaling the peaks of their artistry and hearing
the work of a hot and fresh dramatist. That’s cool.
One important note: The Ambassador Theater is shallow, which is good
because even those in the last row of the orchestra will feel close
to the action. But it is also unusually wide which is bad for people
on the sides; particularly since the play’s tiny set, framed by black
masking, is confined to the center of the stage thereby making for
Last year Parks’ "In the Blood" was nominated for a Pulitzer.
This year the playwright, who previously won acclaim for "The
America Play" (which also has an African-American posing as Lincoln
in the same arcade), succeeded in winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
— Simon Saltzman
New York. For Tickets call Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
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