TOPDOG/underdog no Top Dog, but no Underdog Either
In a tale of two brothers, Booth (Gilliard) and Lincoln (Perrineau) find themselves living together, not by choice or chance, but by necessity. Having been abandoned by their parents at a young age, they cling to each other as if by static, but with that closeness also comes some shocking electricity. Opposites by nature, but similar by birthright, both Booth and Lincoln want a better life, but disagree on how to get there.
Booth doesn't even make a living, his "boosts" what living he has, but dreams of being able to buy things with income he'll derive from conning tourists in games of Three-card Monte (which he hilariously practices quite badly throughout the evening). His other salvation, or so he thinks, is 'amazing' Grace, a figure we hear a lot about but never get to see (sort of like 'Vera' on Cheers or 'Stan' on Will & Grace). Such flippant pop culture references are perhaps not appropriate, given that the fact that 'Grace' never appears, and actually abandons Booth in the evening, is ripe with heavy symbolism.
Lincoln, meanwhile, has given up his life of conning, after his partner in crime was shot dead. He has taken on a more honorable job, portraying Abe Lincoln in a seaside carnival shooting gallery. But, given that he is African-American, he must were white face paint, which unfortunately looks as if he has a target drawn right on his face. And as luck would have it, his job is in jeopardy, with a wax figure in the running to take his place (again, heavy-handed symbolism).
Throughout the evening, we witness the brothers' fluid relationship, one minute acting like an old-married couple, as they budget the weekly paycheck, and the next minute, sibling rivals trying to dominate each other. They are each other's best friend and worst enemy, as they strive to understand how they got where they are, and plan to escape the dead-end world they inhabit.
When Lincoln does lose his job, Booth gives him the hard sell, trying to entice him back into the con, convinced that it is only by working together can they finally begin to move forward. Only Booth doesn't realize that by inviting a con man into a con, he may be the one who is the ultimate victim.
None of this would work effectively were it not for the skilled performances of Gillard and Perrineau. The continual fluidness of this relationship and their interactions are so cunning and skillful, you could almost see them as two sides of the same person. One could also see them taking on the other's role, much the way Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in their recent Broadway stand in Sam Shepard's "True West" (a play with not so different themes as Topdog). Aside from incredible acting, the way the two men move on stage, whether Booth displaying the way he'll woo Grace or Lincoln practicing his movements as Abe Lincoln in the shooting gallery, electrifies the theatre and the audience.
That being said, the play seems to simply exist, and while one can enjoy the performances, the heavy handed symbolism throughout the play almost seems to undermind its message, leaving one asking, is that all? Which makes one wonder why the play won the Pulitzer, but not the Tony Award for Best Play. While awards are certainly no indication of how good a play is or isn't (neither are reviews like this one), but perhaps it does indicate that reading a play, where one can create the characters, setting and images in their mind, can render a piece stronger than simply watching a play interpreted through someone else's vision (in this case, George C. Wolfe).
That is not to say that the evening is devoid of great images, quite the contrary, as this production delivers many wonderful moments, some laugh out loud funny, others frighteningly terrifying to watch. Kudos, as well, to the set designer, Riccardo Hernandez who has created a timeless ramshackle room, which is cleverly devoid of dressing, but which only underscores the emptiness and degredation of the two brother's lives.
Overall, Topdog/Underdog proves an engaging evening, and sheds public light on the very talented Ms. Parks, but at the same time leaves one simply asking, "So?," and leaving one's soul slightly less nourished than one would hope. It is a tragic tale, in the vain of Cain and Abel, and the brothers of "True West," which presents life's problems and begs us to care, but then, when we ask how can we help, seems to shrug its shoulders with a collective sigh, unsure of how to answer.
Topdog/Underdog, now playing at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N Grand Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles. Playing Tuesdays to Fridays, 8pm; Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm; Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:30pm. No performances March 9-12, no 7:30pm performance on March 28; extra performance March 24 at 2:30pm. Ends March 28, 2004.
Tickets from $33 to $47, available by calling (213) 628-2772 or by visiting http://www.taperahmanson.com/.
From This Author Timothy Kuryak