Every element in Suzan-Lori Parks’ demandingly smart, dark, resonant play Topdog/Underdog requires attention and repays audience effort to take in all of the playwright’s intriguing ideas at one go. Consider: The two brothers whose history-of-underbelly-America story this is are African-American men named Lincoln and Booth — as in the emancipator-President and his assassin.
Further, the siblings pursue their overt and covert professions in a twisty symbiosis of needs and skills: Lincoln, who formerly swindled the public in broad daylight with his swift ability at three-card monte, now wears whiteface makeup to impersonate President Abraham Lincoln for passersby at an amusement show. Booth, by contrast, is a thief who works his game without an audience. The two share Booth’s claustrophobic, bare-bulb rented room, but they don’t share the same memories of their own family history. Or is that American history?
Parks’ intense examination of who’s up/who’s down tension, her fascination with questions of black/white, older brother/younger brother, freedom/slavery, and family myth past/reality present is given sharp form in a fine Public Theater production directed by George C. Wolfe.
But the sharpest contrast of all is provided by the performances of Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln and Don Cheadle as Booth — the stage-savvy actor (Angels in America) and the magnetic screen star (Boogie Nights). The dense, commanding Wright, an actor used to taking chances live, communicates with the merest grimace or flex of the hand. The quicksilver Cheadle, by contrast, looks liquid, restless. Who’s top, who’s under? The two bounce off one another and circle like loving/ hating siblings. The clash is unnerving, like the story Parks tells.