Watching the Jobsite Theater production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog is a complicated experience. The acting is good, but not good enough; the script is powerful, but weakened by improbabilities and a too-narrow focus; and even the set is problematic, wanting to convey a messy, low-rent apartment, but coming across instead as thrown-together and artificial.
Yes, Parks' play won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but, witnessing this version, it's not quite clear why. The two characters in the play — the brothers "Booth" and "Lincoln" — come across here as too limited to stand for anything but themselves; their preoccupations are so narrow that they become one step short of tedious. The play's most ambitious assertion — that people at a games arcade would pay to shoot an actor impersonating Abraham Lincoln — is never convincing. Finally, the violence in the play feels obligatory; just when we're searching for the play's deeper significance, we get an adventitious trick out of Tragedy 101.
Kudos to Jobsite for bringing us the work of one of America's most important playwrights, but, as directed by Paul J. Potenza, Topdog/Underdog lacks subtlety and complexity. One leaves the theater suspecting that there's a lot more to Booth and Lincoln than this production ever shows us.
There's not a lot of plot. Lincoln and Booth were abandoned by their parents years ago and left to fend for themselves. The elder Lincoln used to be an expert at three-card monte, a game from which he pocketed sometimes hundreds of dollars a day. But now Lincoln has given up the scam, and has a respectable job playing Abe Lincoln at an entertainment arcade.
His younger brother Booth is a thief who "boosts" suits, rings and champagne and just about anything else he desires. But Booth's real dream is to become a three-card monte shark like Lincoln once was, and he spends much of the play trying to convince Lincoln to show him his moves.
Meanwhile, the brothers have things on their minds. Lincoln is afraid he might lose his job to a wax dummy, and Booth is concerned that his girlfriend Grace may not love him. And both brothers keep trying to understand why their parents abandoned them, and how to feel about the loss.
Finally, we get several opportunities to watch Lincoln and Booth practice three-card monte — more opportunities than we need, perhaps — and we learn that Lincoln's wife has thrown him out of their apartment, possibly because he's sexually impotent. Add Booth's tendency to boast about sexual conquests he may or may not have made, and there's the whole play.
Now, in a two-hander like Topdog, you would expect to have lots of time to enjoy the complex personalities on the stage. But this is where the current Jobsite production falls painfully short. Consider Derek Lance Jefferson, who plays Booth as a seething, resentful, bottled-up personage who's a danger to everyone he knows.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with showing us this aspect of Booth's personality, but Jefferson almost never lets on that Booth has more to him than his anger. Most important, Jefferson doesn't show us Booth's vulnerabilities, his humanity, the aspects of his character that would allow us to see ourselves in him.
The paradox is that Jefferson's performance, though limited, is genuinely powerful; it's only later, when we're trying to understand why the play didn't reach us, that we recognize what it lacked.
The portrayal of Lincoln, by that usually excellent actor "ranney," is unsatisfying in a different way. Lincoln is clearly the more complex of the two brothers, and we depend on the actor playing him to make all sorts of interpretive choices as he presents a coherent whole. But ranney's portrayal lacks specificity; it comes across as a genial blur, and we never find the answer to Lincoln's feelings about his brother, his commitment to going straight, his nostalgia for life on the streets, his true feelings about his parents.
With Jefferson playing one note to the exclusion of almost all others, and ranney failing to provide a convincing take on his character, Topdog remains alien, about two odd characters we can't begin to recognize. It has brute power in a manner that recalls Artaud's "Theater of Cruelty," but one can't help suspect that author Parks is after something deeper and more prismatic.
Which brings me to those unlikely, distracting elements of the script. I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to believe that any parents named their children Lincoln and Booth, and I find it more unlikely still that the one named Lincoln would eventually find a job playing Lincoln, stovepipe hat and all.
I find it unlikely that impulsive, angry Booth would wait for his brother's OK before going out on the streets with his three-card monte skills; and I find it hard to believe that Lincoln wouldn't have learned many years ago how to keep his brother away from violent outbursts.
Unconvincing too is Brian Smallheer's set of what is supposed to be a squalid rooming house space, but comes across instead as an undergraduate's dorm room, with unmade bed, torn wallpaper and a badly patched easy chair.
The uncredited costumes are fine, though, and John Lott's lighting is every bit as stark as it needs to be. One last difficulty is director Potenza's decision to place seats for the audience on both sides of the stage; this is, even with its clunky symbolism, a realistic play, and there's no point in reminding us that we're all spectators in a theater.
That's the long and short of it: an overly simplistic rendering of what should be a complex play, lots of force and little subtlety, problems in acting and design. An interesting experience, but not an illuminating one.
And not many clues as to how this play nabbed that precious Pulitzer.