In ‘Topdog/Underdog’ Suzan-Lori Parks has written a bruising, raw play about brotherly rivalry and parental abandonment for which she won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play ran on Broadway at the Ambassador’s Theatre for five months in 2002 and the same production has now transferred to the Royal Court.
The story concerns Lincoln and Booth (so named as a joke by their father). Lincoln once was the top dog, hustling cards on the streets of Manhattan where he would trick a mother out of her welfare check, or some unsuspecting tourist out of their spending money. However, when Lonny, his stickman (the one who entices people to place their bets) was shot dead, he decided to quit whilst still ahead. He now earns his money chalking his face and dressing as Abraham Lincoln at an arcade where tourists take shots at him, re-enacting the President’s assassination. Booth, the younger brother, dreams of the day when he can hustle cards with the same skill that Lincoln once did, meanwhile he makes ends meet by shoplifting.
The banter between the two brothers is amusing and believable, Booth boasting about his sexual prowess whilst Lincoln reminds him about the stack of well-worn porno mags Booth keeps under his bed, or the friendly banter about African names. Parks skilfully blends into these engaging exchanges memories of childhood and more recent events.
The play is at it’s best in the first act where the two brothers are like a comic duo: Booth all edgy and bursting with nervous energy and Lincoln sardonic and full of dry wit. The director George C.Wolfe brings the full humour of the play to light, with the two brothers at times appearing to be in a vaudeville act; Booth dances around his shabby apartment like a magician making items of clothing, he had earlier shoplifted, miraculously appear from his many hidden pockets, whilst Lincoln dresses in his Honest Abe costume - Stovepipe hat and false beard- with a light casting a large silhouette on the wall behind him.
The second act quickly becomes dark and intense as Booth comes to terms with reality resulting in tragedy for both men!
Both actors give powerful and convincing performances. Mos Def (Hip-Hop artist as well as actor) captures Booth’s immaturity, beneath the confidence there can be seen self-doubt, loneliness and despair. Jeffrey Wright portrays the far more complex character of Lincoln. Whether as the sardonic drunk or the fast dealing card hustler, he has a muted charm and dignity.
Through the acting is excellent and the dialogue often brilliant, there are two many lengthy passages, too much fast-talking con speech about three card Monte, and an over-traumatised childhood to make these characters anything more than mildly amusing.
Notices from the popular press....
RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "A richly multi-layered delight." MADDY COSTA for THE GUARDIAN says, "Topdog/Underdog feels taut, involving and strange." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Exhilarating, funny, and by turns devastatingly sad." THE TIMES says, "This is a vibrant, gritty, lyrical play full of striking moments with performances to match." KIERON QUIRKE for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "This is a great play, well worthy of its Pulitzer prize."
External links to full reviews from newspapers