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Review: Corey Hawkins Becomes a Star in New Broadway Revival of Topdog/Underdog

Kenny Leon directs Suzan-Lori Parks's storied drama in a new production also featuring Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog on Broadway
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Even by today's "seen it all" standards, the premise of Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog is audacious. More than audacious. In an era of TV reboots, superhero action flicks, and jukebox musicals, this 21-year-old drama proves once again to be one of the most original plays ever to be seen on old Broadway. What a thrill it is to be in the presence of Kenny Leon's new revival at the Golden Theatre, where two exciting actors — Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II — are picking up the cards and giving us a singular night of theater.

Parks's dark comedy is a semi-riff on Cain and Abel, the story of two brothers and their birthright. That they are named Lincoln (Hawkins) and Booth (Abdul-Mateen) tells you all you need to know about where she's going; that Lincoln works as a whiteface Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade shooting gallery does, too. But don't let that deter you. Like any great theatrical tragedy where the outcome is predetermined, half the fun is pretending that the inevitable is impossible. Hawkins and Mateen do a great job of throwing us off the track, even if Leon's staging needs to ratchet up the tension.

Lincoln and Booth (given those names as a sadistic joke by their father) are at the mercy of the system. Depressed and divorced, Linc gave up the job he was good at — a three-card monte hustler — after one of his associates was killed. Now he plays "Honest Abe" in a ratty gabardine coat, icky beard, and white face paint, as people shoot caps at him day after day. Looming over him is the threat of unemployment, as the bosses ready to replace him with a wax figurine.

Despite Linc's desire to go straight, he's still under the spell of the cards, and so is the younger Booth. Booth is a wannabe three-card dealer stuck with two left hands and without the apparent mastery of his big brother (what he's really good at is petty theft). As Booth — who starts going by the moniker "3-Card" — tries to talk Lincoln into creating a double-act, their fraught relationship, familial drama, and namesake trauma comes to a head one night, and neither will be the same.

Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog on Broadway
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Topdog/Underdog is a play that's all about rhythm. Parks's exceptional text ebbs and flows like a piece of music. The original production, which George C. Wolfe directed at the Public Theater with Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle (with Mos Def replacing Cheadle on Broadway), almost felt like a piece of old school vaudeville. Leon's production is more grittily realistic, with an appropriately grim set by Arnulfo Maldonado that slides forward from within a terrarium of gold curtains, tenement-style lighting by Allen Lee Hughes, and weather-beaten costumes by Dede Ayite. This level of naturalism has positives and negatives: It makes the play much more frighteningly lifelike, but it loses some of the theatricality at the same time. The result is a dramatically imbalanced two-and-a-half hours, with the tension entirely confined to the second half, when there really needs to be some in Act 1, also.

The imbalance somewhat extends to the acting. The evening is dominated by Hawkins, delivering a titanic performance and really the best he's ever been. Simultaneously pitiable and terrifying, you feel Lincoln's desire to go legit in the way that Hawkins carries himself, slightly stooped instead of upright, and with the remnants of a swagger that has otherwise been destroyed by weariness. But you can still completely recognize what made him so good at the card hustle. Hawkins and his Lincoln have that ineffable quality known as "it." And when he wraps his tongue around Parks's dense patter ("Pick uh red card you got a loser pick thuh other red card you got a loser pick thuh black card you got a winner"), "it" is absolute magic. I haven't been able to stop thinking about how good he was.

With that level of magnetism, it would be hard for anyone to keep up, and it's almost unfair to have to judge the completely respectable and very good performance from Abdul-Mateen by the same standard. He, too, has some indelible moments: namely, a wordless ballet in the first act where he disrobes two separate business suits that he pinched from a department store at once. But his Booth is a little too sensitive, lacking the livewire energy, the almost psychotic toughness, that the role really needs for the ending to work. Like a game of three-card monte, you need a little misdirection here and there, but his cards are always on the table in full view.

In a recent interview with American Theater tied to the revival, Parks stated that her overwhelming intention in writing the play was to allow Black male actors to "shine." Sure, Leon's production could use a little tightening, but Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen shine as bright as Parks could ever dream. And that's no con.

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