Is “Topdog/Underdog” as outdated as the three-card monte that the play revolves around?
In Suzan-Lori Parks’ twenty-year-old play, two brothers with the loaded names of Lincoln and Booth spend much of their time practicing, and arguing over, the card game that was once a ubiquitous sidewalk scam in New York City. But three-card monte disappeared from city streets years ago.
Does this mean the play is a period piece? Not intentionally: The playbill for the first Broadway revival of “Topdog/Underdog,” which opened tonight at the John Golden Theater starring Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, tells us the setting is “here” and the time is “now.”
The anachronism of the card game is not all that felt dated about this “Topdog/Underdog.” Yes, in 2002, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and in 2018, it topped the New York Times theater critics’ list of the 25 Best American Plays of the previous 25 years. But, while Kenny Leon’s direction highlights some comic moments and drives home some poignant ones – and Lord knows neither American violence nor Black despair are out-of-date — there is little in the current production that feels urgent.
A key to appreciating “Topdog/Underdog” is understanding that it was never really here and now. The play is less a literal depiction of two down-and-out Black brothers than a smart, dark, often funny allegory, with subtle allusions to the Bible (Cain and Abel) and less subtle similarities to classic Theater of the Absurd.
There is little linear story here but daily life shot through with layer after layer of metaphor.
Lincoln (portrayed by Hawkins) makes his living performing as Abraham Lincoln, in top hat, frock coat and whiteface, in an arcade where customers pay to shoot at him, recreating Lincoln’s assassination. And he’s grateful for the job; worried he’ll be replaced by a wax dummy.
His job seems at best unlikely. But it’s a striking metaphor for much about American culture and society — our fascination with violence, for one, and the ways that Black men have had to demean themselves just to survive. It also harkens back to a time when Africans were put on literal display (which Parks dramatized in her 1998 play “Venus,” based on the historical figure of Saartjie Baartman, who was born in what is now South Africa, and brought to England in 1810 to be exhibited in freak shows as the Hottentot Venus.)
Lincoln took the arcade job after he quit as a professional three-card monte con artist, when his friend and confederate Lonny was shot, apparently during one of their cons. Lincoln’s wife has kicked him out, and so now he’s staying in a single room in a rundown rooming house (where the entire play takes place),with his younger brother Booth (Abdul-Mateen.) Booth, who has no job other than shoplifting, is himself so eager to become a professional three-card monte con artist that he decides to change his name to 3-Card. But he’s no good at it, and he knows it, though pretends otherwise, so he wants to get Lincoln back in the game. Three-card monte – a con that involves role-playing and deception — emerges as another metaphor, the central one of this play about two characters steeped in role-playing, deception, and self-deception.
The playwright does make an occasional effort to tie her various metaphors to some kind of reality. The brothers, for example, say that their father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke. But it’s not the script but the performances that most help ground “Topdog/Underdog” in a semblance of reality.
In 2002, when “Topdog/Underdog” debuted on Broadway for a four-month run, Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def were playing the kind of characters rarely seen on Broadway, certainly not written by a Black woman.
In the years since Parks became the first Black woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, there have been three more (Lynn Nottage, Jackie Sibblies Drury and Katori Hall.) There have been plays with more Black characters in a wide variety of circumstances, many more fully fleshed out than Lincoln and Booth, who are easy to see as archetypes, engaged in what many see as stereotypical behavior of what used to be called the underclass. Perhaps most to the point, there are few new two-character plays that last 140 minutes with an intermission. Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” the first of seven plays last season written by Black playwrights, also focused on two Black men, also had an air of allegory, with clear allusions to both the Bible and classic Theater of the Absurd. It had a running time of 95 minutes with no intermission. One might argue that Parks’ work surely influenced Nwandu’s, and many other theater artists as well. But that extra 45 minutes takes its toll.
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, who is making his Broadway debut, is a familiar face on screen, a regular in the Aquaman franchise and an explosive Bobby Seale in Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” He has some of the scary energy to portray Booth, who (like his namesake) is a gun-carrying hothead, and also obsessed about a woman named Grace: “She’s in love with me again,” he tells his brother, “but she don’t know it yet.” But Abdul-Mateen’s most memorable scene is a mute one, in which he comes back into the rooming house and does what you could call a striptease, but it’s not sexy, it’s business: He removes all the clothing he’s wearing (two suits complete with accessories: ties, belts, shoes) that he shoplifted from a department store. (Costume designer Dede Ayite certainly deserves much of the credit)
Corey Hawkins played the charmer Benny in last year’s film of In the Heights; before that he was the con artist in the 2017 Broadway revival of John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” (which also did not age perfectly.) His memorable moments include a funny blues song that he sings, accompanying himself on a guitar that sums up the hard-luck life he (and Booth) have had, starting when their parents abandoned them when they were teenagers.
He reminisces with Booth about what life was like before they left:
“We had some great times in that house, bro. Selling lemonade on thuh corner, thuh treehouse out back, summers spent lying in thuh grass and looking at thuh stars.”
“We never did none of that shit,” Booth replies.
“But we had us some good times” – like the time they sabotaged their father’s car, flattening all four tires.
Such moments almost make up for the deliberate shocks in “Topdog/Underdog,” which don’t feel as shocking as I imagine they used to.
John Golden Theater through January 15, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermissionTickets: $74-$240
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Kenny Leon
Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design by Justin Ellington
Cast: Corey Hawkins as Lincoln, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Booth