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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.

Broadway: `Topdog/Underdog’

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

it.

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

tragic self-delusion.

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

centers.

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

poor sight-lines.

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

Topdog/Underdog, Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49th Street,

New York. For Tickets call Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.


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