This ‘Topdog’ Sheds All Underdog Status
Every element in Kenny Leon’s hilarious, harrowing new revival, from the casting to the design, conspires to leave you shaken and stirred, and exuberantly entertained.
It’s a pretty safe bet that a play whose only characters are named Lincoln and Booth isn’t going to have a happy ending. Credit Suzan-Lori Parks, then, that in “Topdog/Underdog,” which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002, the two brothers bearing these names keep us so dazzlingly off-balance with their tragi-comic antics that their final showdown is at the least a punch in the gut — or, if managed by the right director and actors, a blow to the heart.
When “Topdog” had its premiere on Broadway 20 years ago, the production was helmed by the estimable George C. Wolfe, then artistic director of the Public Theater, and featured two unevenly matched stars: One of the most fluid stage actors of his generation, Jeffrey Wright, played Lincoln, and a rapper and former child actor, Mos Def, was making his Broadway debut as Booth.
While a charming and charismatic presence — as anyone who would catch him in subsequent film and TV roles and hosting gigs could attest — Mr. Def couldn’t manage the extremes of black humor and pathos the play requires as adroitly as Mr. Wright did. As a result, I’ll admit I didn’t grasp the full power of “Topdog.”
Not until last week, that is, when I attended a preview of Kenny Leon’s hilarious, harrowing new revival, in which every element, from the casting to the design, conspires to leave you shaken and stirred, and exuberantly entertained.
A director known for culling robust stage performances from famous actors — among them Denzel Washington, whom he guided in the most recent Broadway stagings of “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun” — Mr. Leon has enlisted a formidable duo: Corey Hawkins, whose stage, film, and television credits range from “The Walking Dead” to acting alongside Mr. Washington in Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” plays Lincoln, the elder sibling; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, a Yale School of Drama graduate and Emmy Award winner for “Watchmen,” is cast as Booth.
“Topdog” opens with Booth alone in his rooming-house apartment, practicing a game of three-card Monte. Lincoln, who is crashing with him, enters dressed as the president he was named after, his costume replete with a fake beard and white face paint. We’ll learn that the older brother once thrived as a hustler, using skills Booth lacks to cheat bystanders out of small fortunes; a colleague’s bad turn — and guilt, perhaps — redirected Lincoln to his current, humiliating job at an arcade, where patrons take turns pretending to shoot him while he’s in costume.
It unfolds that these young men are the offspring of wildly unqualified, quite possibly sadistic parents who abandoned them while they were still in their teens. The mother left first, then the father. This has produced a desperate co-dependence and a seething rivalry, both of which Messrs. Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen illustrate in blazing but beautifully nuanced performances.
In his first moments on stage, Mr. Hawkins gives Lincoln the manic energy of an overeager standup comic, making Mr. Abdul-Mateen’s Booth seem almost coolly subdued. Gradually, though, their rhythms sync up, and Booth’s underdog status is made plain, even as the alternately conflicting and complementary dysfunctions of the characters are fleshed out.
Revealing moments can be as funny as they are poignant. Booth, an inveterate shoplifter, adorns his meager pad with romantic trinkets, all stolen, while waiting for a date who will never turn up. Lincoln, at his brother’s urging, rehearses a more dramatic approach to his role as assassinated icon, screaming and flailing about — repressing, at least for the moment, any shame in the task.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design places the characters in a sparsely but neatly furnished room with a lush gold curtain looming above them, underlining both their doomed aspirations and the heightened theatricality and allegorical elements of the play. Excerpts of music by jazz and soul giants — Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, James Brown, Marvin Gaye — position Lincoln and Booth’s travails in the context of larger social struggles, and add to the sensory punch provided by Allen Lee Hughes’s sometimes playful, sometimes eerie lighting.
As wrenching as this “Topdog” ultimately is, in fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a better time inside a Broadway theater this fall. And that’s no hustle.
Ms. Gardner has written about theater and music for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Town & Country, Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly and other publications. She is a board member of the Drama Desk and has served on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, most recently as chair.