By Holli Harms
TOPDOG|UNDERDOG is a tale of brothers. Brothers fighting for who is number one, who is better, who is richer, who is kissed by the gods. A biblical Cain and Abel, or in industry Tesla and Edison, brothers in sports Piccolo and Sayers, brothers in history Achilles and Patroclus, and the brothers of our tale Lincoln and Booth.
Lincoln and Booth are brothers who lived through devastating hardships growing up as children. The trauma of their childhood is the core of how they function in the world. They survive by humor. Making light of this and that, and that and this, everything is a game. They survive by dreaming. Dreams of love, of money, of marriage. They survive by stealing, by groveling, by their rat-a-tat-tat speeches of better lives just arm’s length away. The speeches they deliver daily to one another with language so vivid and vast, cool and loud, are games of comeuppance and they are visually and verbally kaleidoscopes of energy and levity. You laugh with them, at them, for them.
At the core of the brother’s survival was Lincoln’s art of the card game, Three Card Monte. A game Lincoln no longer plays, a swindle he no longer cares to be a part of, finding victims/marks, and taking them for all they have. Booth wants to take up his brother’s craft. He wants to learn from the master, he wants to make the kind of money Lincoln would make. Taking home in a week’s worth of scams thousands of dollars, thousands of dollars made from three cards and a slab of cardboard. Three Card Monte is an ancient game of confidence. A “confidence trick” game. You let your “mark” win, build their confidence, then take them for all they have.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ won a Pultizer for this masterpiece and rightly so. With her spectacularly vivid dialogue that sails across the boards and over the audience, she holds us spellbound in one room with two men and a world of life and story. Like the card game, she has written a confidence play with the four members of the Lincoln and Booth household, mom, dad, Lincoln, and Booth vying to win, to trick, to be top dog. But what happens when the players lose their confidence and the game no longer holds its strength? What happens when the lines of victim and swindler are blurred? What happens? Mom and Dad exit leaving their two boys, the two brothers, on a hamster wheel of tricks, doing all they can to stay upright.
Lincoln and Booth are not acted by Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. They are not performing, they are inhabiting these amazing characters as they tear their way through the play, gnashing and gnawing, growling and harmonizing, running and crawling. They are breathtaking. BREATHTAKING.
Kenny Leon‘s navigation of this torpedo of a play is flawless, mesmerizing, and powerful. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design is both magically theatrical and devastatingly harsh. It is enhanced by Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting which is stark as well as celebratory.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG top to bottom perfection.
On the subway platform heading home, there was a woman standing very still, her program in hand. I slowly approached and pointed to the program and put my hand over my heart. She said, “I have to go home and cry. Cry because there is nothing else to do, no other emotion that will relate to what amazement I witnessed.” She spoke for all of us.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning TOP DOG |UNDER DOG, On Broadway, Directed by Kenny Leon
With: Corey Hawkins as Lincoln, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Booth
Creative Team: Allen Lee Hughes Lighting Designer, Arnulfo Maldonado Scenic Design, Dede Ayite, Costume Design, Justin Ellington Sound Design
John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street).
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with 15-minute Intermission