Broadway review by Adam Feldman
“Watch me close watch me close now,” says Yahya Abdul-Mateen II at the very start of Topdog/Underdog, as though anyone would want to look elsewhere. In the deeply absorbing Broadway revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2001 two-hander, Abdul-Mateen plays a would-be street grifter named Booth (or 3-Cards, as he aspirationally insists on being called); as the curtain rises, he is practicing his monte, but his card-sharp skills are dull. He lacks the con-man confidence of his older brother, Lincoln, played by Corey Hawkins—who makes an unforgettable first entrance dressed as Honest Abe himself, in whiteface makeup, a strap-on beard and a stovepipe hat. The intimacy of the Golden Theatre keeps us close to these men for more than two hours, and watching them is thrilling.
As the characters’ names suggest, Topdog/Underdog—which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and has only grown in reputation since—offers an open invitation to be read allegorically, and Parks’s dazzling text gives you a lot to think about afterwards. On that level, it can be seen as a study of America, Black history, capitalism, masculinity and the dangerous intersections among those things. (In the version of three-card monte that Booth keeps trying to perfect, the two black cards are the losers; in Lincoln’s version, the black card is the winner—but there’s only one.) It is also, in an important sense, about the representation and performance of those things onstage. It has a century of theater history in its bones, spanning from recent works that straddle the personal and the metaphorical, such as the plays of Sam Shepard, to much older influences. (Lincoln and Booth subtly echo the archetypes polished in the early 20th century by the Black vaudeville team of Bert Williams, who performed slow comic pantomimes in blackface, and his partner George William Walker, whose persona was that of a flashy city slicker.)
Directed by Kenny Leon (A Soldier’s Play), the new Broadway production smartly wraps the play in explicit artifice: Arnulfo Madonado’s set design, vividly lit by Allen Lee Hughes, places Booth’s shabby one-room apartment in a theatrical limbo of rich golden curtains. But this gilded frame surrounds a detailed double portrait that is surprisingly naturalistic in its strokes. This Topdog/Underdog functions well, in fact, as a psychological study of two brothers whose complex relationship alternates between bonding and rivalry—a world of small-time “scheming and dreaming” rendered with believable turns of comedy and anger.
Superlative acting is at the core of the experience. In the play’s original productions at the Public Theater and Broadway, Lincoln was played by Jeffrey Wright, whose sheer weight of command onstage tended to tip the balance of power in his direction. Here, the dynamics shift back and forth more evenly: It’s a constant teeter-totter of advantage. The physically imposing Abdul-Mateen, who memorably played the placid blue-skinned demigod in Watchmen, is equally effective here as a striver driven by resentment. And Hawkins (In the Heights), who is actually three years younger than his costar, ages himself up beautifully; his Lincoln seems exhausted, as though wrung out by the effort of going straight, but his soulfulness nudges through in key moments (including a gorgeous rendition of a blues song). Together, these two performers keep you guessing even as the play moves inexorably toward an outcome that has been in the cards all along. In the dog-eat-dog world that Parks deals out, can anybody win?
Topdog/Underdog. John Golden Theatre (Broadway). By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Kenny Leon. With Corey Hawkins, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. Through January 15.
Topdog/Underdog | Photograph: Courtesy Marc J. Franklin