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A Good Act 

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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer-winning drama Topdog/Underdog introduces its two characters--African-American brothers named Booth and Lincoln--in the very first scene. Booth carries a gun. Guess what's gonna happen.

Cheated of any potential suspense within the first few minutes, viewers spend the next two hours watching Parks build to the inevitable violent climax of her contemporary riff on Cain and Abel. The time's not wasted. Topdog/Underdog is less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are often compelling in this coproduction by Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Houston's Alley Theatre. Starring Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman as Booth and Alley resident artist David Rainey as Lincoln, Amy Morton's staging is packed with superb acting and rich verbal and visual poetry.

Abandoned as adolescents by their parents, Lincoln and Booth share a run-down room in an SRO, locked in a sad and dangerous bond of codependency, rivalry, depression, and love. Lincoln, the elder brother, is a past master of the three-card monte scam. "Back in the day," as he puts it, he ruled the street with his con game. A failed marriage, a bout with alcoholism, and the shooting death of his partner have made him go straight. He's landed legitimate employment--"a sit-down job with benefits," he brags. But what a job it is: wearing whiteface and a stovepipe hat, he impersonates Abraham Lincoln in an arcade attraction where patrons are invited to reenact the president's assassination by "shooting" him in the back of the head with a cap gun.

Such a game is outlandish, of course--which doesn't mean that in this day and age something similarly bizarre doesn't exist somewhere. (It's only a step removed from the African Dip, a popular attraction at the old Riverview amusement park in which African-American men hurled racial insults at white passersby to rile the rubes and make them pay to throw baseballs and dunk them.) But from Rainey's first appearance, the image of a black man in white makeup portraying a leader martyred in the cause of a war fought to end slavery--a war, like the one stewing between Booth and Lincoln, that set brother against brother--is so startling that it thrusts us into the play's world, an eerie mix of surreal nightmare and harsh urban reality that the program describes as "here" and "now."

Booth, though five years younger than Lincoln, has been cast as caretaker for the sibling he both worships and resents. It's a role he doesn't relish (his antipathy recalls Cain's complaint, "Am I my brother's keeper?"). In fact, Booth wants Lincoln to return to his former profession as a cardsharp, with Booth as his sidekick. But Lincoln wants nothing to do with that. He's turned his back on the past--and he knows that his volatile brother lacks the delicacy necessary for the game. Rehearsing their routines for each other, Booth is loud and threatening while Lincoln takes a subtle, soft-spoken approach better suited to establishing a false rapport with his marks.

At its worst Topdog/Underdog is a bit of a con itself, manipulating the audience with heavy-handed symbolism while trafficking in stereotypes of the slick dude and the rough-edged homeboy. But at its best this uneven play is a showcase for exciting, sometimes brilliant writing and acting. Parks's use of alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm, and repetition marks her as a first-rate creator of dialogue. And her imagery, though obvious, unleashes a flood of religious, mythic, historical, and sociological resonances while creating a disturbing portrait of a family trapped in poverty and despair. Some viewers will dismiss Topdog/Underdog as "August Wilson meets Sam Shepard," but while Parks is obviously influenced by those playwrights--and also, I think, by David Mamet, Alan Bowne, and Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), among others--her writing is distinctively her own.

At the play's core is Parks's fascination with the act of performance. It's worth mentioning that President Lincoln's assassination took place in a theater, and that this Lincoln's impersonation of him is a form of theater. In several memorable vignettes, the players enact nonverbal rituals: Lincoln slowly, deliberately dons his costume to rehearse his act; Booth proudly, carefully sheds layers of clothing he's just shoplifted and sets the suits out for display. And the most vivid sequences are those in which the brothers perform their three-card monte rap: "Watch me close watch me close now. The red card is the winner. Pick a black card you pick a loser. Two black cards but only one heart." Lincoln describes the patter as "fairly complicated. The moves and the grooves, the talk and the walk, the patter and the pitter pat, the flap and the rap. What you're doing with your mouth and what you're doing with your hands."

Morton's detailed, keen-eyed staging takes its cue from that description. Every sentence of the text is perfectly wedded to the actors' gestural vocabulary, yet the performances never feel choreographed or stylized. Rainey as the world-weary Lincoln and Freeman as the intense, comic, yet dangerous Booth create convincing, compelling characters even when Parks's play lets them down.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.


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