By Vicki Weisfeld
The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.
Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and his five years’older brother Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan) have an uneasy relationship further destabilized by their dwindling life prospects. Their names—chose for them by their father as a cruel joke—seem to constrain their lives, and Booth is set on changing his name to Three-card.
Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out. It’s close quarters, and Booth would like him to move on, but Lincoln is the one with a job and an income. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him. The carnival hired him because it can pay him less than a white man, but now even that meager income is threatened.
In the old days, Lincoln made his living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but refuses to take up the cards again. Failing that, Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.
Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by first their mother, then their father when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts many times.
Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, beaten down not just by his dispiriting job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He comes most to life when, alone in the apartment, he finally takes up the cards again.
Production credits to Rakesh Potluri for the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery), Megan Berry (lighting), Tramaine Gray (costumes), and Naveen Bhatia (sound). The production features music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which, like the play, is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.
Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.