The 20th anniversary revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog, is just as powerful and absorbing as before with its story of two African American brothers Booth and Lincoln who are searching for the American Dream in opposite ways. Under the astute but leisurely direction of Kenny Leon (Tony Award Best Revivals of A Soldier’s Play, A Raisin in the Sun and Fences), rising stars Corey Hawkins (Tony nominated for Six Degrees of Separation, and appearances in the film versions of In the Heights and The Tragedy of Macbeth) and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Emmy Award winner for HBO’s Watchmen as well as ensemble awards to the cast of The Trial of the Chicago 7) give riveted performances in this two-hander.
Parks’ play suggests early Eugene O’Neill in its depiction of life in the lower depths and its use of the vernacular. Set in a shabby SRO boarding house with the bathroom down the hall, the play introduces us to Booth and three years older brother Lincoln (their names were their father’s joke) who are sharing Booth’s space since Lincoln’s wife Cookie kicked him out. Lincoln who ironically works at a carnival arcade as an Abraham Lincoln in white face dressed in frock coat, stovepipe hat and the requisite beard sitting as if watching a play while customers attempt to shoot him with blanks, brings home his weekly salary, while Booth appears to be a hustler who shoplifts for a living. Lincoln has been a 3-card monte hustler in the past but gave it up some years ago to earn an honest living though Booth envies him his skill and wishes to follow in his footsteps. They live in an uneasy truce as there is much water under the bridge from their troubled past, including the fact their mother left them when they were 16 and 13, respectively, and their father went on his way two years later.
Parks uses this framework to explore brotherhood, race relations, sibling rivalry, family dynamics, bad parenting, sexual one-upmanship, violence, economic systems, and the American Dream. The play’s six scenes resemble vaudevilles as the brothers go through their various memories, beliefs and daily routines. There is the continual hint of an impending explosion them while their names suggest an ending that we don’t see coming.
The play also investigates the failure of the American Dream. Lincoln worries about losing his job to a mechanical model which will not need a salary. Booth who has no skills has also lived by his wits without a steady job but never seems to be in need of ready cash. Lincoln’s explanation for why their parents left, “There was something out there that they liked more than the liked us,” points to the restlessness of the American spirit, always on the move, without a fixed destination. The historic Abraham Lincoln and Booth’s brother Lincoln are two ends of the spectrum, though this Lincoln embodies both.
Abdul-Mateen II and Hawkins play opposites. Hawkins is serious, sober, reticent and intellectual. He shows us that Lincoln regrets many things he has done but has come to terms with the hand that fate has dealt him. Abdul-Mateen II’s Booth is frenetic, hyped up, angry, resentful, not very truthful and an inveterate dreamer. He never stops moving while Hawkins is able to stay stationary for a long spell. They play off of each other like they have known each other all of their lives which of course is what makes them so convincing as brothers.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s setting revolves in and out almost as though it were a peep show in a carnival, surrounded by elaborate gold curtains that suggest that they are putting on a show meant for the audience. The shabby room with no more than one of everything reveals the life they are living without any words spoken. Dede Ayite’s nondescript costumes suggest any time in the last 20 years as well as the present. The lighting by Allen Lee Hughes goes in for some lurid effects through the window which hint at the neon signs of a street of bars and clubs that are open until the wee hours of the morning. The jazz, pop and R&B songs supplied by Justin Ellington pre-show and between the scenes could have been used in the original production and set the mood for the verbal jive to come.
Two-character plays are difficult as there are only two actors – or one – on stage to carry the ball at any given time and a good deal of invention is needed to maintain interest. Susan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog handles this beautifully and never lets attention flag for a moment. The title is ironic as which is which keeps shifting throughout the play. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins add to their impressive and growing resumés with these captivating and compelling performances. It is to their credit that every time they come through the door of the apartment we worry that they have more bad news. Director Kenny Leon continues to demonstrate his skill with staging contemporary classics with discernment and understanding, bringing his insight to very different American masterpieces.
Topdog/Underdog (through January 15, 2023)
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Topdog/Underdog.com
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission