‘Topdog/Underdog’ Back on Broadway Still Has Eyes on American Long Con

A man walks into a shabby apartment wearing a large down coat. He’s bundled up against the cold, or so we think. But soon he’s doing a thief’s striptease: there’s a whole supercharged costume underneath, tags and everything. When he turns around, we see another suit, still on its hanger, hanging down his back. He continues to unpack, finding two shirts, two jackets, two pants, two belts. Then, just when we think he couldn’t hide anything else, he pulls out two ties.

“Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ tour de force, wears its own puffy coat: it’s a poetic piece of passion in which the metaphorical crucifix is ​​American history, dressed as a realistic double on one-upmanship fraternal. Each image smuggled inside is a kind of double or inversion or mirror. That’s also true in a broader sense: the often superb Broadway revival now at the Golden can’t help but be a through-the-glass version of the play’s original incarnation, the one that was premiered to the public in 2001 and moved to Broadway in 2002. Expectations are high. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins take on iconic roles, made famous – and still deeply marked – by Yasiin Bey (known then as Mos Def) and Jeffrey Wright.

Gone is the dark, fun quality of George C. Wolfe’s now-legendary production, replaced by a gripping, even naturalistic portrayal of black men at their limits. Hawkins plays the creepy, haunted older brother, Lincoln; Abdul-Mateen is the ambitious Booth who rips off the suits. Their names psychically connect them to the historic Lincolns and Booths, but the brothers are also locked in their own kind of existential struggle. As they eat Chinese food, joke about the women who left them, and add up their meager accounts, each takes turns taking the top dog, then the underdog, then the top dog again. It’s the “first move that separates the player from the player being played,” says Lincoln, who trained his eye for suckers when jostling the three-card mount. But who really came first, when America’s long swindle began hundreds of years ago?

In the show’s twisted, torrential language – it moves like living water – Parks joins an acute social insight reminiscent of James Baldwin (he was the first person to tell her to write plays, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke) with her own jazz-inflected dramaturgy. She exerts rhythmic control of the interior of the text, distinguishing between “rests” (which indicate “take a little time”) and “spells” (which are longer and have an “architectural aspect”):

Good evening.
Lunknown: You can hustle the 3 card mount without me you know.

Parks was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and in the two decades since, her award-winning play has become a classic. The New York theater scene is very different today than it was in 2002, when she was the only black writer to present a play on Broadway, and she, too, is different – a big figure instead of a bomb thrower. We’re in the middle of a Parks-a-palooza right now: later this fall, she’ll be performing in her new work, “Plays for the Plague Year,” a kind of mourning cabaret, at Joe’s Pub; then, in winter, her musical adaptation of “The Harder They Come” will debut at Le Public, where she has been in residence since 2008.

‘Topdog’ director Kenny Leon – who was nominated for a Tony for directing the sensitive 2020 revival of ‘A Soldier’s Play’ – points to the heard quality of the dialogue, the ease of shooting shit the brothers have together. His work with actors is light but sure. Abdul-Mateen – swaggering, dynamic, easily offended – reacts behind the beat, maintaining his optimism for a minute after bad news breaks. Hawkins, on the other hand, just stays ahead of the moment, his shoulders slightly scrunched up, like an overplayed card, even when the brothers seem to be getting along. They’re both wonderful, but Hawkins gives a sneaky, peekaboo performance that rolls past you like a grenade.

The explosive realism, however, is only half the storyline’s double act. Lincoln’s daily job is to dress up as his namesake in a game room, plaster his face white, and don an old-fashioned coat and stovepipe hat, all so fun-seekers can ” murder him” blank. Lincoln is a professional “fake dad” — a joke that pops up in “The America Play,” another drama Parks wrote about a black Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Long after the character’s first chilling entrance into his arcade costume, Honest Abe remains in our thoughts – he’s the face of every penny anyone has ever earned, the reminder of freedom on strings.

Parks wants us to see double, so she fills her text with references to symmetrical or mirror images, like a pair of black cards in a street pattern that Booth practices (“I’ll show you the cards: 2 black cards but one heart”) and a shiny, bumpy fuse box where Lincoln can see the reflections of his arcade assassins coming behind him.

Btooth: Your best client, he came today?
Lunknown: Oh, yeah, he was there.
Btooth: He shot you?
Lunknown: He shot Honest Abe, yeah.
Btooth: Does he talk to you?
Lunknown: In a whisper. Pull left whisper right.
Btooth: What did he say this time?
Lunknown: “Does the show stop when no one is watching or does the show continue?”

In case you’re wondering if these doomed brothers are in the world of allegory, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design includes a sepia American flag curtain that lifts to show us Booth’s shabby bedroom, single bed, and armchair. red recliner where Lincoln sleeps. Gold scalloped curtains that frame the proscenium extend all the way around and behind both walls of the set. When the curtain of flags rises, the piece pivots slightly towards us, as if finishing a turn on a pedestal. Cars in showrooms get luxurious, glittering decors like this; trophies too.

When it comes to what is in this piece, however, Leon keeps the metaphors tidy. In his work on stage, Leon is not interested in the grotesque or the strange, nor in making sense of something we cannot see. Allen Lee Hughes turns his lights up and down on the men (it’s still dark, but when, say, Lincoln sings, he gets a seat), but he doesn’t get stark and expressionistic with them, like Scott Zielinski did twenty years ago. Leon poured his energy into the actors and making their interactions unhurried and unpretentious. The play is awfully funny, but Leon makes sure it’s funny funny, true to the moment, up to the minute. Abdul-Mateen and Hawkins certainly give cinematically fine performances, but by focusing solely on their realism and plausibility, the work’s other stylistic cards are not played. Leon’s transitions are hasty and a little clunky, and it lacks the way the show should summon – especially in its final moments – an unseen force, a demonic mill somewhere, grinding fate.

So you’ll have to listen, rather than watch, as the boundaries of Parks’ reality keep curling in on themselves. Much of what the two men say about what happens in the rest of their lives is unreliable, based on fantasy or lies. Scholar Michael LeMahieu argued that the best customer, the one whispering in Lincoln’s ear, might be Booth. (I can believe it. Parks loves making pun remarks, and when Booth asks, “He’s a brother, isn’t he?”, our Spidey senses should be ringing.) Let Leon explore it. or not, there is a clear indication that we are seeing something more than the ruin of a small family. America will not let these men out; Emancipation will not let these men out; the dark and violent preoccupation with male potency will not let these men out. Under that big puffy coat, there’s a pair of mirrors for all of us. That’s how you get a mise en abyme, after all: you point two mirrors at each other, and instead of showing you an image, they reveal an infinity that stretches out into the dark. ♦

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