Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright in Topdog/Underdog(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright in Topdog/Underdog
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
The names sported by the brothers in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog are their absentee father's idea of a joke. Lincoln is the older one; he's adept at three-card monte, although he's sworn off the cards since one of his crew was shot and killed. Booth is the younger one, who wants desperately to learn the tricks of the flim-flam trade. There's someone else closely associated with the enterprise who, metaphorically speaking, is adept at three-card monte, and that's Parks. Her two-character whirligig of a play is entertaining but ultimately insubstantial. The way the brothers work their game, it's the deuce of spades that isn't where it should be; the way Parks works her game, it's the play.

With The Stronger, August Strindberg established a formula for two-character pieces in which a power struggle takes place and the ultimate winner could very well be the seemingly weaker figure. Ever since then, dramatists have been tempted to follow the Strindberg recipe; recent examples are DL Coburn's The Gin Gam and Sam Shepard's True West. And now comes Parks's variation, which opened at the Public Theater earlier in the season with Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright and has now transferred to Broadway, again directed by George C. Wolfe, with Wright still playing Lincoln and Mos Def stepping in as Booth.

Because Parks has a wonderful ear for the charged manner in which homies speak, along with an ability to spark characters with throbbing life, Lincoln and Booth are magnetic personalities. As the playwright contrives it, Lincoln just happens to hold down a carnival job in which he appears in white face as Abe Lincoln so that would-be Edwin Booths can shoot him off his perch. It's a position he expects not to hold for long. But, as long as he does, he's one job up on his dodgy sibling, whose aspirations lean only toward operating his own card scam--complete with revolver to insure success--and courting a girl named Grace, who, as far as the text goes, may or may not exist. Going off on each other for two acts and becoming more and more rattled about it, Lincoln and Booth populate a work that seems more like a series of comedy sketches. The burlesque element is, without question, another of Parks's aims. She is abetted in this regard not only by director Wolfe, who's an old hand at these sorts of endeavors, but also by lighting designer Scott Zielinski, who frequently throws harsh shafts of light up at the performers so that the shadows cast on the back wall of Riccardo Hernandez's shabby, one-room set grow and shrink in keeping with the play's top dog/underdog theme. An orchestra might just as well be playing "Me and My Shadow."

As the action spins, a number of the variations that Parks has built into her umbrella variation prove to be highly amusing. Perhaps the funniest is the scene in which the brothers jump into the fancy suits, ties and shoes Booth has stolen on one of his nefarious forays. (Costume designer Emilio Sosa has picked out some mighty fine ensembles.). The boys' conversion into a couple of vogueing dudes is a delight, especially as it underscores for the only time in the play their affection for each other. The brothers are almost as funny during a stretch when Booth is sneaking an under-the-blanket peek at his girlie magazines and Lincoln, pretending to be asleep in his reclining chair, sneaks a peak at Booth. Booth does some solo rib-tickling when he's supposedly preparing dinner for the elusive Grace, and Lincoln has his moment when practicing moves that he thinks might keep him his carnival post. Both men also get to show off their dexterity at cards more than once.

But whereas Parks clearly has it in mind to present a postmodern take on vaudeville conventions, an update on what entertainers like Bert Williams and longtime partner George Walker were doing to divert crowds that were comfortable with send-ups of stereotypes, her intentions go unrealized for the most part. (Incidentally, Lincoln wears a battered top hat that calls to mind the top hat in which Bert Williams often performed.) Too much of the byplay between Lincoln and Booth is repetitious, yet their history remains vague: The only bit of background information we are vouchsafed is that their father and then their mother abandoned them, the mother after giving each of the boys $500. And Parks, having named her characters Lincoln and Booth, tips us off to the end result of their increasing animosity.

How do the performers fare in this flawed play? Jeffrey Wright, who had the previous limited run to get his part down, acquits himself with a husky man's grace. Appearing initially in white face, he uses the rest of the play to mine all the legitimate pathos of the unwilling and often unwitting clown Lincoln. Wright closes the first act with a virtuosic go at three-card monte and his auctioneer's reeling-off of Parks's slanguage ("You thuh man of thuh hour you thuh man with thuh power") is mesmerizing. In sum, he gives a solid portrayal of a man fatally stuck in quicksand. Mos Def makes his Broadway debut here and proves himself worthy even while showing that he still has a distance to travel. Booth, as written, doesn't change much during the course of the play: He's on edge at the beginning, fidgeting with anything he gets his hands on, and only somewhat edgier at the end. The actor-turned-rapper-turned-actor hasn't as yet found enough different colors to bring variety to a character that the author has scanted.

With Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks presumably wants to send a few messages about the travestied lives that black men too often endure, but she adds nothing to what hasn't already been said. Indeed, the number of plays in which ghettoized African-Americans are forced to lash out at one another are becoming legion. Perhaps Parks believes the point must continue to be pressed until it's finally made; if so, she has to accept the fact that her piece will consequently have something stale about it. "It's a man's world," James Brown sings as the play starts--sound designer Dan Moses Schreier put together the prominent, rhythm-and-blues-y soundtrack--but this world is also very familiar.

Though Parks didn't pull off many magic tricks in her adaptation of the Golden Boy script for the Encores! series, she is skilled at sleight-of-hand. If it weren't for the performances of Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, Topdog/Underdog would be slight indeed.

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[Ed. Note: Barbara & Scott Siegel reviewed Topdog/Underdog for TheaterMania when it played at the Public Theater. To read that review, click here.]