February 16, 2004
By Rob Kendt
From the simple raw materials of three-card monte--a few crates and a board, cards creased like small tents and placed in a row--a seasoned hustler can turn his streetcorner into a kind of open-air palmist's den, as seductively intimate as a confessional or a peep-show booth. He might as well be stroking a crystal ball as he looks into his mark's eyes and unspools his hypnotic, reiterative patter.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks manages a similar sleight-of-hand hustle with her brilliant two-hander Topdog/Underdog, now in a stark, stunning, roof-raising production at the Mark Taper Forum. Dealing with a seemingly small, stacked deck--two brothers, suggestively named Lincoln and Booth, reminisce and recriminate over a few nights in a tatty walk-up flat--she appears to show us her hand, all the while spinning out tangents and tricks that divert us from the high stakes on the table.
"There's just so much in the cards," marvels Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), a former three-card virtuoso drawn inexorably back to the street after trying to leave it behind. It's equally true of Parks' deceptively lean play, the best to grace the Taper stage in years; there are untold riches in its hilariously profane badinage, in its impish horseplay, in the unforced but undeniable mythic suggestiveness of its iconography.
Indeed, at times director George C. Wolfe's staging, with a bare bulb splashing tall shadows onto Riccardo Herna ndez's stagey cutaway set, explicitly references the disreputable pleasures of the minstrel show. Political incorrectness doesn't begin to describe the giddy spectacle of Perrineau's Lincoln--whose macabre day job is to slather on whiteface and dress as his ironic namesake at an arcade shooting gallery--as he mimes alternative versions of Honest Abe's last moments in his Ford's Theatre seat. What annoyed theatergoer, after all, could argue that unwrapping a crinkly candy or taking a phone call in the theatre should be capital offenses?
Even when the staging isn't so openly presentational, there's an undercurrent of competitive showmanship in the tale of two brothers, abandonded in their teens by parents who just couldn't be bothered with family responsibilities anymore, who each turned to a variety of the hustle to get by: Lincoln to a three-card racket that ended in senseless violence, Booth to creative, even impulsive shoplifting ("I stole generously," he says at one point, laying out an impressive spread).
As these two stake out territory and settle old scores, Parks gets at one of the theater's great themes, perhaps its one great theme: the ways we all try to be the playwrights and directors of our own lives, to make sense of their alternately cruel and wondrous randomness by dramatizing them, by making scenes or games of them.
There's no scripting the vagaries of real life, though. And as this playful fraternal scrimmage inevitably turns to a life-or-death struggle, Parks tightens her grip and doesn't let up. It's here that Topdog/Underdog, for all its boasts and toasts, acquires a kind of primal tragic gravity. Parks turns a pedestrian political point--that there's no winning for these no-longer-young black men unless The Man allows it--into a universal whoop of despair worthy of Beckett.
Wolfe has a knockout pair of performers (somehow the word "actors" doesn't cut it) who handle Parks' virtuosic, free-ranging monologues, and lock into a believably well-worn camaraderie. As the older, wearier Lincoln, Perrineau hangs fire masterfully, keeping his cards close to his vest until he comes clean, and gets down and dirty, in the second act.
The strutting, fretting bantam Booth has the opposite arc, from manic to depressive. Larry Gilliard Jr.'s almost scandalously enjoyable performance in the role is indelible, and--like much about Topdog--is deceptively endearing. Gilliard is both a freakily dexterous, scene-stealing physical comedian--watch him apply cologne, or clear an elegant table setting--and a master of the scary slow burn. Not many performers have the range and control to play us like Gilliard--milking hysterical laughter one minute, then giving us a disturbed reverie of pin-drop intensity the next.
But then, that's also a signature trait of Topdog/Underdog. A good playwright can give us a great time at the theater; a great playwright can rock our world. Parks does both: She gives us a good roll before she rocks us.