Brotherhood in particular, and manhood in general, receive a searing look in Suzan-Lori Parks’ complex and powerful “Topdog/Underdog,” which enjoys the intense, penetrating exploration it warrants in Lori Elizabeth Parquet’s engrossing production for Princeton Summer Theater.
Fraternal symbiosis and rivalry intersect and take alternative precedence as two interdependent but essentially different brothers, Booth and Lincoln, scratch out a marginal existence with only each other to be themselves around or to rely on.
The bond is strong. The brothers were abandoned as children by their mother and, two years later, by their father. Each parent left unceremoniously, but each chose to make a $500 gift to one of the brothers, the mother to Booth, the father to Lincoln. The elder by four years, Lincoln has looked out for Booth, but after a failed marriage, Lincoln has come to live with his sibling, sleeping on a recliner in a one-room apartment sans plumbing. The siblings squabble, reminisce, brag, lie, and compete with each other in a roundelay that spawns camaraderie along with anger, jealousy, rebuke, and mistrust.
Each helps to uphold their household, which includes a budget line for medicine — read whiskey — but Lincoln is the bread-winner, working at a beachside arcade where people sporting blank-filled guns shoot him as he poses as Abraham Lincoln in that fateful box at Ford’s Theatre. Both brothers enjoy the irony of a black man playing “Honest Abe” in white-face and false beard. Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan) even demonstrates the fall Abe takes to please his customers.
Booth (Travis Raeburn) makes fun of Lincoln’s job, with Lincoln understanding the joke, but he lives primarily on the pay derived from it. Booth’s talent is shoplifting. He regularly “boosts” key items of food, furniture, and clothing that provide the brothers with some luxury while stretching their strained funds.
Lincoln was not always a modest wage-earner. He was once one of the prime dealers of a three-card monte scam and had a New York-wide reputation for his prowess. Booth is keen to learn Lincoln’s legerdemain while Lincoln is on the lookout to see if he can regain and retain his finesse with the cards.
Both brothers are on the hustle. Their survival insists on it, which comes clear when they talk about their hardscrabble past and the difficulty an untrained, uneducated black man has getting lucrative work. Sympathy always seems to outweigh conflict, but money and which brother can outmatch the other in procuring cash, obtaining goods, and scoring with women threatens to tip that balance.
Parks is shrewd in two distinct ways. She keeps scenes interesting and moving toward the inevitable showdown between the brothers while raising issues and themes that resonate beyond the siblings’ story. These cover one-upmanship and a need/desire to the top dog in most situations. In Booth and Lincoln, you see and hear attitudes that are associated with men in general including a need to never be the weaker.
Parks also has a sure knack for interweaving intimacy and the history the brothers share in conversations that may begin with or lead to taunts and enmity but contain the mutual memories and experiences that forge a bond between Booth and Lincoln, their names obviously purposeful and ironic.
Parks is served elegantly with the tight, sincere, immediate production by Parquet. All, including the audience, are lucky for the sterling performances of Nathaniel J. Ryan and Travis Raeburn, who are individually remarkable but as a pair exhibit a symbiosis between actors that translates to a believable tie between Lincoln and Booth.
Ryan and Raeburn seem to breathe as one. They are finely in tune with each other’s rhythms and motions. This creates a strong sense of reality and creates both tension, palpable and sometimes appropriately uncomfortable, and plausibility for details that might seem strange or cloudy, such as shooting Abe Lincoln as carnival entertainment or whether Lincoln and Booth have purposely or accidentally slept with the other’s woman.
Parquet’s staging masterfully combines the genuine with the theatrical. Frequently involvement becomes so great, and matters so natural, it’s easy to forget a play, rather than a scene from life, is taking place.
Ryan is particularly impressive as he moves from being the humble, unduly grateful employee of a mean-spirited arcade owner, who keeps threatening to replace Lincoln with a mechanical Abe, to an urbanely confident operator of a three-card monte board, one he wields with an expertise that eludes Raeburn’s Booth.
There’s subtlety and nuance in the transition. Ryan shows Lincoln resuming his place as a bona fide top dog after a sojourn in the underdog realm.
Raeburn gives Booth a constant edge. Booth is a perpetual underdog, but Raeburn shows his reluctance, to the point of inability, to acknowledge that.
Raeburn may let you see Booth’s insecurity in private moments, but he keeps the character rightfully energetic and optimistic in the way people who know the truth about themselves mask their angst with bravado. A scene in which Booth, alone in the apartment, dances with abandon and celebrates the talent he has only for stealing, clearly illustrates the character’s nature.
Byplay between Ryan and Raeburn is perfect. You half want them to create a team and travel together doing play after play. They are that attuned to each other and their characters.
Rakesh Potluri provides a set that shows the division of the brothers, even the wallpaper in their sections of the room being different, while creating a middle space where they can come together and setting a mirror where both brothers can preen. Tremaine Gray’s costumes are dead-on while Megan Berry’s lighting sets moods and times of day. It is particularly impressive in a scene when night turns to dawn.
Topdog/Underdog, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through Sunday, August 18. Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m. $24.50 to $29.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.