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Theater review: 'Topdog/Underdog' at South Coast Repertory

January 15, 2012 |  6:10 pm

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” in revival at South Coast Repertory, characters named Lincoln and Booth by their parents as a sick joke struggle to survive the historical funhouse they’re trapped in.

The Freudian compulsion to repeat the past combines with the Marxist notion of tragedy’s inevitable return as farce — deadly farce, in the case of these two brothers holed up in a decrepit one-room apartment lacking not just a second bed but also running water and a toilet.

These men aren’t just prisoners of memory, they’re stuck in a grimy economic jail cell with little chance of parole. They laugh and poke fun out of a kind of slow-burn despair that can occasionally seem like a ghetto “Waiting for Godot.” Other times their story will have you thinking more biblically — Cain and Abel for starters.

PHOTOS: 'Topdog/Underdog'

Topdog2The production, directed by Seret Scott, drains some of the jazz from this propulsive two-hander, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The rhythm between Larry Bates’ Booth and Curtis McClarin’s Lincoln is slower, less syncopated than it was between Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def in the Broadway production. The language doesn’t have the same electric pop, but the situation is presented with a bit more grit. There’s no getting around the somber squalor when the vernacular fizz is played down.

Lincoln is crashing at his younger brother’s place (dingily materialized by scenic designer Shaun Motley) after his wife kicked him out. A former three-card-monte street hustler, he is working at an entertainment arcade impersonating Abraham Lincoln in an attraction that invites spectators to shoot him. It’s not his dream job, but it covers the rent and pays for their Chinese food and daily supply of booze.

Booth, the underdog of the title, wants to replace his brother as the neighborhood card shark. But his technique needs work, and he knows it. Shoplifting is a cinch for him, but anything requiring finer dexterity, including women, is a challenge. The gun he keeps waving in the air is a sign of his frustration, sexual as well fraternal.

The brothers have been mutually dependent since their parents went AWOL when they were adolescents. The presence of the other is a comfort but also a reminder of an unbearable loss. The play threads the psychological to the sociological as it moves to Lincoln and Booth’s three-card-monte showdown, with money left by their mother and long safeguarded by Booth at stake.

Parks, who boldly invokes her earlier drama “The America Play,” which featured another African American dressing up as our 16th president in a similar crackpot ritual, may be operating in a more straightforward mode than her more radical early work, but she still enjoys outlandish flourishes. “Topdog/Underdog” just contains them within a more conventional family narrative.

How does the play hold up? The dramatic action is stretched thin over two acts, but the characterizations are so pungent and the dialogue so feisty that it hardly matters. The ambition of the piece is more limited than, say, the playwright’s “Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom,” but Parks succeeds over a more audience-friendly strip of ground.

McClarin turns in an emotionally scrupulous performance as Lincoln, but he strikes perhaps too heavy a depressive note. His Lincoln is not just downbeat, he’s in slow motion. It’s understandable that the character’s energy would be sluggish given the ratty recliner he’s been sleeping on (a sad symbol of his unaccommodating existence), but the card scenes lack the requisite verve, and the play loses some of its forward drive.

Bates, adopting a seedy swagger, brings a sharp edge of menace to Booth. When the violence comes, it seems inevitable, though no less tragic for being so. The aggressiveness is clearly a cover for agonizing vulnerability.

In so fully inhabiting the brothers’ familiarity with each other, Bates and McClarin hint at feelings too tender to be made visible. Their fate may be a reenactment, but that doesn’t make the ending of Parks’ compelling drama any less painful to experience.


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--Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Topdog/Underdog,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.  7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.  $20-$68. (714) 708-5555 or  Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Photos: Upper: Larry Bates, left,  and Curtis McClarin.  Lower: Bates, left, and McClarin. Credit:  Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times