Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic drama Topdog/Underdog is receiving a particularly gripping revival at New Jersey's adventurous Two River Theater Company. Perhaps that's because the work has been staged by the author herself and stars two young real-life brothers, Brandon J. Dirden and Jason Dirden.
The piece – which was inspired by Parks' own The America Play, in which a black man impersonates Abraham Lincoln as part of a sideshow attraction and allows customers to pretend to be John Wilkes Booth and assassinate him for the cost of a penny -- depicts the unstable home life of two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth, who now live together in poverty in a single, very empty room without phone service or even running water.
Lincoln (Brandon J. Dirden), the older and more mature brother, is a former street corner hustler who now makes his living as a Lincoln impersonator at a nearby arcade, which he proudly refers to as a "sit down job with benefits." Meanwhile, his unemployed brother Booth (Jason Dirden) wishes he had the same three-card monte abilities -- a metaphor for the countless con games that pervade the lives of the characters -- as his older sibling.
While the overlong and sometimes static first act mainly introduces the pair's backgrounds and personalities, act two brings the conflicts and suspicions already brewing between the brothers to a violent and inevitable climax.
Parks takes full advantage of the malleable Two River space by presenting the play on a small thrust stage with a slanted floor that closely surrounds the audience.
Christopher Akerlind's minimal set depicts the poverty shared by the brothers in graphic detail, while his lighting depends on footlights in order to create looming shadows on the wall and ceiling.
As might be expected, the two brothers play off each other extremely well, with each alternating between emotional highs and lows. While the calmer Brandon is bogged down by his character's fear of unemployment and of his own past, the characteristically jubilant – but also fragile and desperate – Jason is typically seen jiving around the stage while Booth dreams of becoming a master card shark.