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Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Topdog/Underdog’ in the Round House review: a devastating revival

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There’s sibling rivalry, and then there’s the brotherly struggle between Lincoln and Booth, the fatefully named brothers at the center of Suzan-Lori Parks’ devastating card trick psychodrama “Topdog/Underdog.” If the playwright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for this deceptively wealthy two-hander, had named her characters Cain and Abel, she would still have understood the tragic inevitability of the thing. But she wouldn’t have the recurring chord of cruel, fundamentally American absurdity that makes this noir hybrid of “Waiting for Godot” and “True West,” first performed in the summer of 2001, one of the most rightly celebrated plays of this made time. young, bloody, cruel and absurd century.

Parks had the singular genius of imagining a character who encapsulates the contradictions of our shaky republic: a black man wearing white as his namesake, our 16th and most revered president. No, he is not reciting the Second Inaugural Address or the Gettysburg Address; he has wannabe John Wilkes Booths shoot him with blanks dozens of times a day in what is only described as “an arcade,” in one of Parks’ surreal highlights.

“It’s easy work,” Lincoln insists to his little brother, if you can ignore the layers of humiliation baked into it – including the fact that he’s afraid of even losing. this horrible performance for a wax doll. Booth is not at all inclined to overlook these not-so-microaggressions.

“Topdog/Underdog” is not set in a specific time or place, but its insular story of two deeply isolated brothers and roommates has eerily foretold the atmosphere of looming unreality that now surrounds our public discourse.

Director Jamil Jude’s confident Round House Theater revival, anchored by deft and compelling performances from Ro Boddie and Yao Dogbe as Lincoln and Booth respectively, draws out every note of humor and pathos from Parks’ immortal script. Abandoned by their parents at an impressionable age, these brothers were each given an “inheritance” of $500. Their most prized possession is an album of photos from their decidedly unidyllic childhood, which Booth in particular reminisces about. He even claims that he wants to emulate their negligent father and mother, stating his ambition to sire many offspring and then let them figure things out for themselves.

Not that they both know much about it. Booth wants Lincoln to return to his former calling as a card sharpener, taking the same slackers who are now lining up to shoot him for all the money they have at three-card monte. Booth even rehearses Lincoln’s quick actions and faster chatter (“Look at me now!”) when he’s home alone, trying to get his brother to address him as “Three Card.”

Unfortunately, his own sticky fingers are more adept at shoplifting than throwing cards. Despite his childish insistence that a woman named Grace is so bewildered by his stolen wealth that she has both agreed to unprotected sex and demanded that he marry her, Booth is utterly confused by the perceived dishonesty of the fairer sex. As for Lincoln, his wife left him years ago – and then briefly sought solace in Booth’s bed!

They’ve had a hard time, these two brothers.

The desperation they both have to work overtime to keep at bay is so pervasive and oppressive that Jude, Boddie and Dogbe must mine every kernel of levity to keep the enterprise from becoming too depressing to bear. One of these gags comes early, when Dogbe performs a sort of clown-car variation on a striptease, somehow removing an entire stolen wardrobe from under his oversized parka—not just two complete suits, but two pairs of dress shoes. ‘I stole, and I stole generous”, he beams. (The costume designer has dressed Dogbe’s Booth in an old Washington Bullets T-shirt, a welcome local touch.)

Throughout the long evening, the light from a neon sign—a sign we can’t quite read—hanging outside the window of Meghan Raham’s appropriately grimy set, bathes the brothers’ barren home in a hellish shade of crimson. The subtextual question beneath each stanza of Parks’s wrenching dialogue is, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We already know the answer, but it still hits with the force of a bullet.

Top dog/underdog, through June 23 at the Round House Theater. About 2½ hours, including break. roundhousetheatre.org.