Lean in close and watch them now, lean in close: you don’t want to miss this.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is Suzan-Lori Parks’s play of brotherhood and betrayal, of the (perhaps only apparently) shared struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving social terrain, of conmen and the conned. A decade ago, the play exploded onto the stage of the Public Theater and later Broadway to announce itself and Parks to any who may not have been paying close enough attention to her earlier form- and tradition-defying work as powerful voices in the aesthetic discourse of a new century. Now, on the tenth anniversary of the play’s Pulitzer, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is setting the stage of Red Bank’s Two River Theater ablaze with the power of what is surely among this young century’s most important plays.
So lean in close, because this show is what theater ought to be: bold, funny, grippingly tense, heartfelt, and unapologetically relevant. And productions of this magnitude are as fleeting as they are rare.
Under the direction of the playwright, and starring real-life brothers Jason and Brandon J. Dirden, this TOPDOG/UNDERDOG oozes authenticity. It feels like the play coming alive from Parks’s script in however pure and unadulterated a fashion that theater might allow, and the effect is to invite us deep into the heart of this play. Parks (who says that she comes to this play fresh, after a decade of little to no engagement with it) finds and underscores the fractured essence of the play’s brothers, while the Dirdens do not seem ever to shy from evoking their own brotherly bond in the service of characters defined almost entirely by their fluctuating relationship to each other. The three artists combine to bring the brothers’ tattered social and domestic environments into the sharp focus needed to show us two brothers fighting to stay united in the face of a social order and their own selfish aspirations that would drive them into conflict.
A two-man play set entirely in a seedy boarding house room, TOPDOG/UNDERDOG shows us the unsubtly named brothers Lincoln and Booth as they struggle to get by in a cold and unsympathetic society. Elder brother Lincoln is a legendary three-card monte hustler who abandoned the cards when his partner was murdered, and now works at “a sit down job with benefits” impersonating his namesake in an arcade attraction where tourists pay for the thrill of assassinating Honest Abe with a cap gun to the back of the head. Younger brother Booth lives off his unparalleled shoplifting skills and a share of Lincoln’s salary, but his real aspiration is to ascend to the levels of success and notoriety at three-card monte once occupied by his brother.
Booth begs his brother to come back into the hustling game with him, or at least to show him a few moves, but Lincoln has sworn off the cards like a recovered alcoholic swears off the bottle, determined not to put himself in position for relapse. The play’s ebb and flow sees Booth at once defiantly determined to strike out on his own, but painfully aware that he needs his brother’s guidance, and Lincoln trying to hold the line against his old life, while sliding ever closer back into the street hustle. Together, this family of two struggles to find its niche in an indifferent social fabric while always aware that their personal ambitions may not brook company.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG’s pulse is the vibrant interplay of its two characters, at all times both united and offset, a rhythm expertly achieved by the Dirden brothers. Though they are family, Lincoln and Booth’s most essential characteristics are those which distinguish them from each other. Older brother Lincoln is experienced, jaded, and patient whereas Booth is anxious, eager, and idealistic about the easy money just waiting for him and his brother to snatch up off the street. Accordingly, Brandon J. Dirden’s Lincoln is slow in his gate and methodical in his speech, while Jason’s Booth is manic to the point of skittish, with a hustler’s quick rhythmic diction.
Both actors envelop themselves in Parks’s prose poetry, but the different ways they deploy it opens a window to their characters. Brandon’s Lincoln channels his namesake with a measured, deliberate speech pattern, delivering the winding rhythms of his words in a weathered baritone that suggests experience and the cautious knowledge that danger awaits he who would rush too quickly ahead. If Lincoln is the orator, Booth is the street bard, looking and sounding like he is fresh from a poetry slam. Jason’s speech is lively, quick, high-pitched, and delivered in the cadenced pulses of free verse. The actors’ mannerisms match their speech—as Lincoln is smooth, calculating, and confident, while Booth is frenzied and often agitated—and so do their characters’ identities. Booth never realizes that the key to moving forward is slowing down and matching rather than overpowering his brother’s rhythm.
Like any great family drama, the most gripping tension of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG comes in the places where the primordial bonds of family are tested and strained the most. Parks’s direction often highlights these moments by making the most of the brothers’ cramped living space (set designer Christopher Akerlind wonderfully condenses Two River’s playing space—which has the capacity to be much larger—in order to concentrate the tension of confinement). Often the two brothers square off at the small stage’s opposite extremes, and circle each other like boxers or bull fighters, looking for an opening at which to strike. Fraternal bond or not, Booth wants nothing more than to usurp his brother’s place as Topdog, but Lincoln is prepared to offer no quarter.
Two River’s production of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG shows marvelously that this play is as vibrant and immediate as it was upon its opening and as it has remained for a decade. Parks has said that it is “a play about family wounds and healing.” Abandoned by their parents as children and scorned by a rigid society, all these brothers seem to have at their disposal for survival is each other. The clear brotherly bond between Brandon and Jason Dirden provides that starting point, but the conman hearts of Lincoln and Booth quickly expose their family’s wounds, and calls into serious question the access that they, their society, or any of us have to healing.
Written and Directed by Suzan-Lori Parks
September 8 – September 30, 2012
Two River Theater Company
21 Bridge Avenue
Red Bank NJ, 07701