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Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle in Topdog/Underdog
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Everything about Topdog/Underdog at the Public Theater is first rate--except the play. The production has got topdog star power in the persons of Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, both of whom are exceptional in this two-hander about the love/hate relationship between brothers. It's got top-dog director George C. Wolfe, who stages the play with economy and energy--and who had the clout to entice our two movie-star leads back to the stage.

Unfortunately, it's also got underdog playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who has riddled this work with a fusillade of metaphors that kill its dramatic impact. When the two lead characters in a contemporary drama are named Booth and Lincoln, it's hard not to suspect what is coming. Why not give them normal names and allow us at least a modest degree of suspense?

Parks squeezes every last bit of meaning out of her metaphor by having Lincoln (Wright), an African-American, dress up as Honest Abe in whiteface (he ostensibly earns his living as an amusement arcade attraction). We first meet Lincoln as he comes home from work in costume to the one-room apartment that belongs to his kid brother, Booth (Cheadle). Lincoln is down on his luck: His wife has left him and he's in danger of losing his presidential impersonation gig. He even gets to sing a little blues number about the downward spiral of his life.

Trust and betrayal are literally living side-by-side as the brothers struggle for control of their relationship. Booth, it turns out, dreams of making big money as a street hustler dealing Three-Card Monte; big brother Lincoln was once flamboyantly successful at throwing the cards, and Booth would like nothing better than to surpass him. But Booth, though a gifted shoplifter, has trouble grasping the psychology involved in suckering the man on the street.

Parks has written an ambitious play: Topdog/Underdog is as much about sibling rivalry as it is about the effect of broken homes on the underclass. It's also about life as a cosmic bait and switch, a theme epitomized in the use of Three-Card Monte as a central metaphor. With all of this "meaning" in her play, maybe Parks wanted her audience to know where the story was going so that they could concentrate on its themes rather than its plot. If so, she has played the wrong card--her ambition overreaches her talent. She writes tasty dialogue, but the play's themes are merely presented, never driven home with depth nor explored in their complexity.

Ultimately, it is the actors who command attention in Topdog/Underdog, their performances heightened by Scott Zielinski's dramatically effective lighting. Wright plays Lincoln close to the vest, emotions hooded, allowing us to see his pain and suffering but keeping something hidden inside his soul. Cheadle's performance is almost the exact opposite: expansive and manic, his emotions entertainingly transparent. This Booth represents a clear case of arrested childhood.

Both characters are, in fact, deeply scarred by the events of their youth. First they were abandoned by their mother, then by their father. Mom left one child an inheritance when she walked out; the father left the same amount to the other. Clearly, this is not just an inheritance; it's a legacy. In this familial portion of the play, Parks does a good job of establishing the ties that both bind and separate her two protagonists--and the actors make the most of it. When all is said and done about Topdog/Underdog, they are the most of it.

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