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A CurtainUp Review
Top Dog/Underdog

You are only yourself when no one's watching.
Suzan-Lori Parks

D. Cheadle and J. Wright (Photo: Michal Daniel)

It was about a dozen years ago that The New York Times dubbed Suzan-Lori Parks "the year's most promising new playwright". It's the kind of early recognition that becomes the undoing of many: some fade into oblivion, others go on to more lucrative undertakings than toiling in the fields of the theater. In the intervening years, Parks has dabbled in other things (Spike Lee directed her screenplay Girl 6, and she's written other works for film and television), but she has continued to focus on her playwriting and, with Topdog/Underdog, has taken a giant step toward fulfilling the promise with which she was labeled. Last year, her play In the Blood (our review linked below) was nominated for the Pulitzer. It's early in the current season, but one can easily imagine Topdog as a contender for this year's honor.

A significant portion of the credit for Ms. Parks's ongoing exposure is due to George Wolfe, who has now produced four of her plays and has slated a fifth, Fucking A, for this coming winter. He also directs here, spectacularly so, bringing to mind the energy of his efforts in Angels in America, Part 1: Millenium Approaches and the keen nuance of his contribution to Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. He's also had the wisdom to bring along his good luck charm, Jeffrey Wright, about whom more later.

Topdog tells the story of two brothers: Lincoln (Mr. Wright) and Booth (Don Cheadle. Their names are of course rich in symbolism, and the play's tragic end is foreshadowed early on without hesitation. While Ms. Parks has been criticized before for writing plays that are too meditative and inaccessible (at least for some), this one is linear and quite straightforward. Yet she does not want our attention to be consumed by her story (when we see Booth waiting for his putative girlfriend in the grim SRO he now shares with Lincoln, table set and candles lit, we know she will not show); she has bigger fish to fry. Her drama, played out with a generous helping of comedy and inevitably recalling Sam Shepard's True West, has far more expansive intentions. It is these larger impressions that linger: Parks uses the framework of sibling rivalry, with its mix of loving bonds and jealousies, to dismantle the mythology and iconography of urban African American existence in much the way Shepard engages the white "frontier" world.

Park's predominant metaphors are the Lincoln/Booth face-off (underscored by Lincoln's current "legit" gig in which he plays Abe Lincoln in an arcade where he dresses up as the President and gets shot at with a cap gun by customers who pretend they are Booth) and the street game of "Three Card Monte" (Lincoln is a retired master of this con, Booth can't quite get the hang of it although he is a virtuoso shoplifter -- "boosting" in their parlance). The impersonation (complete with a strap-on beard, stove-pipe hat and whiteface makeup) supplies Wright with some of his most compelling material; practicing the game provides both actors with potent support that precipitates the play's surprisingly compelling dramatic tension as well its humor.

Whatever occasional soft spots one might find in the script are more than overcome by two thoroughly-engaging, altogether remarkable performances, not to mention Wolfe's powerful direction. Wright has the meatier role and makes the most of it. His wiser Lincoln is a study in controlled, delectable precision, alternately rueful and wickedly sharp, often in the same moment. Cheadle's Booth, younger and more given to impulse, is rendered with pinpoint accuracy. The chemistry between the two feels genetic.

Riccardo Hernandez gives the room -- it's Booth's, Lincoln moved in when his wife kicked him out -- a keenly observed shabbiness, effectively accented by Scott Zielinski's lighting. Emilio Sosa's costumes, several layers thick when Booth comes home after a successful day of boosting, perfectly convey the brothers' sensibilities.

This play is destined to remain memorable. Parks aims for the sky but succeeds mightily in bringing her subject right into the cross hairs. Kudos all around.

In the Blood
Talking to Jupiter (part of Urban Zulu Mambo
Editor's Note: The play opened n at the Public's Anspacher Theater on July 25, 2001 and ran through August 12th. Except for the fact that Don Cheadle played Booth, the part now played by Mos Def, the production details were the same as for the current production at the Ambassador

Topdog/Underdog Moves to Broadway

Les Gutman's prediction when he reviewed Topdog/Underdog during it's Off-Broadway run has come true. The play fulfilled its destiny "to remain memorable" with a tranfer to Broadway and the possibility of its winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama became reality on the day of its official opening. The sibling allegory has transferred from its limited run at the Public with just one major change -- rapper Mos Def now plays the younger of the two brothers.

While Jeffrey Wright's Lincoln remains the more complex and knock-your-socks-off performance, Def's casting is not just a ticket-selling ploy but, given the script's jazz riff rhythm quite organic. Def plays the less secure, more impulsive Booth deftly and with engaging humor. Best of all, the electricity that marked the interplay between Wright and Don Cheadle has lost none of its spark. To give just one example, there's the funny scene which begins with Def peeling off layer after layer of shoplifted clothes (as Park has Booth put it, "I stole and I stole generously") which turns into a hilarious brother bit as both men don fancy suits, ties and shoes.

Readers familiar with the small thrust stage on which Topdog was initially performed, may well wonder to what degree the intimacy of that setup has been lost on the larger proscenium stage of the Ambassador. While a Broadway house with its bigger seating capacity inevitably puts some distance between the actors and those in the balcony and the rear of the orchestra, director George C. Wolff has maintained the original look and feel. The sides of the wide stage are now a dark outside world from which a platform with Riccardo Hernandez's grunge-perfect set thrusts forth. Very effective indeed!.

As for the play generally, there's little to add to or argue about with Les' very thorough and thoughtful review below. The "soft spots" to which Les alluded remain, especially that all too inevitable ending. Topdog, for all its vaudevillian humor, is a powerfully heartbreaking tale, perhaps best summed up by Lincoln's mournful "There's more to me than that. There's more to life." While life doesn't turn around the brothers' lives, the Pulitzer Prize has already made a difference for the play about them. Seeing Topdog on the heels of the Pulitzer announcement I was heartened to note that the play, which has been something of an underdog at the box office, has become a hot ticket, with every standing room space filled.
-- Elyse Sommer
Broadway Production Notes
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Cast: Jeffrey Wright-Lincoln, Mos Def -Booth
Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 1 intermission
Ambassador, 219 W. 49th St. (Broadway/8th Av), 239-6200
2/08/02-9/01/02; opens 4/07/02
Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm, and Sunday at 7pm. -- $15-$75.
Review by Elyse Sommer based on April 12th performance.

Topdog/Underdog Transfers to London

Suzan-Lori Parks' play Topdog/Underdog about the brothers Lincoln and Booth comes to the intimate Jerwood Downstairs at Royal Court in London for August. Its charm has crossed the Atlantic intact with the second act biting as the men reveal more about their dysfunctional family, the parents, who having named them in an adversarial way, abandoned them before either was fully grown.

Like my colleagues, even with a shaky grasp on American history, I saw the ending coming way off but the overall construction of the play and the vivid dialogue is so much better than the resolution. Since Cain and Abel, the rivalry between brothers has fascinated authors: so much in common and yet conflict and dissonance reign. The London audience enjoyed Lincoln's (Jeffrey Wright) interpretative take on the behaviour of modern theatre audiences with his noisy sweet wrapper and mobile phone. We loved the reaction of the two guys to each other in their new but stolen clothes, their obvious, almost childlike pleasure at the new threads beautifully acted.

Topdog/Underdog is a funny sad portrait of two men with limited life chances, in employment, housing, girlfriends, with the rhythmic, repeated theme of the three card hustle running throughout: "Lean in close and watch me now: who see thuh black card who see thuh black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner pick the black card thats thuh winner pick thuh red card thats thuh loser." Except that no-one really wins.
-- Lizzie Loveridge
London Production Notes - same cast and credits as Broadway

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