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Dog show
Suzan-Lori Parks struts her Pulitzer stuff
By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Amy Morton. Set by Loy Arcenas. Costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins. Lighting by Kevin Rigdon. Sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Fight director Bryan Bynes. With K. Todd Freeman and David Rainey. At Hartford Stage, Hartford, Connecticut, through May 9.

Two black brothers and history inhabit a ramshackle room in Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer winner, Topdog/Underdog. Named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by a father who abandoned them, the jiving, jerked-about siblings move toward a destiny inspired by the Old Testament, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, and Samuel Beckett, not to mention their own given names. That you can see destiny coming is the one major fault of a work that is original, grittily lyrical, allegorical, explosive, and, in its New England premiere at Hartford Stage, in cocky, capable hands.

Lincoln, the elder brother and "topdog" of the title, is a former hustler who made his name at the con game three-card monte. Having retired when one of his crew was killed by an irate mark, he’s like a recovering addict clinging to regular if less glamorous employment — "Sitdown job. With benefits." But Lincoln’s is no ordinary gig. Like the Foundling Father of Parks’s surreal excavation of history The America Play, Lincoln, in keeping with his name, plays long tall Honest Abe in an amusement arcade where the "game" is for would-be John Wilkes Booths to shoot him with a fake pistol. Back home, where he has moved into a crappy boarding-house room with his younger brother after being thrown out by his wife, Lincoln does not wield the operative name. Booth, like the underdog assassin brother of the great actor Edwin Booth, lives — a seething, agitated lothario with a talent for shoplifting — in his brother’s shadow. Not in the shade of the "shit-eating mother-fucking pathetic limp-dick uncle tom" in the Lincoln suit but in that of the legendary hustler, whose mental and manual way with the cards the younger brother can only lamely, if showily, emulate.

Perched on this strange set-up, like the cardboard three-card-monte table on mismatched milk crates, is an exploration of shifting African-American male identity and fraternity that’s both jazzy and funny yet teeters on the brink of tears, Parks’s sparring lost-boy brothers like two sides of a wounded yet resilient self that ultimately implodes, its anger at abandonment and oppression turned in on itself. But, oh, the fun of getting to that sad, if insufficiently shocking, place where the man on the penny — here a ragtag figure in a dusty stovepipe, fake beard, Goodwill frock coat, and whiteface — goes down once more.

Topdog/Underdog opened in 2001 at New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theatre and moved to Broadway in a production that starred Jeffrey Wright and the rapper Mos Def. The Hartford Stage production is helmed by long-time Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Amy Morton, on a floating attic set by Loy Arcenas that’s backed with a splotched, blood-red wall sometimes turned by lighting designer Kevin Rigdon into a thing of shadowy hieroglyph. The staging is well acted and rhythmically driven, with a vaudeville touch that’s heightened at one brief, suspended moment to minstrelsy.

K. Todd Freeman is the flashier of the two performers; his wiry Booth, strutting in tight bike shorts, working his leg like a piston, burns Eddie Murphy–worthy calories. Yet the anguish of the needy, eager "little bro" is seldom far from the surface. The slim physique comes in handy too, allowing the character to enter at the top of scene two looking lanky in a winter coat — only to pull two entire "boosted" outfits, including suits, ties, shirts, socks, and shoes, out of it.

David Rainey’s Lincoln is the subtler characterization: still topdog under beaten dog, the seductive three-card-monte hustler masquerading as shabby presidential duck in a shooting gallery. In a production that crackles but is not afraid to take its time, the two brothers wordlessly suit up in their purloined finery, with Lincoln ultimately suggesting they trade ties since he’s been given the louder one and Booth’s intended lady likes bright colors. Booth snatches back the flashier neckwear, and Rainey delivers a split-second beam that lets us know just which tie Lincoln prefers, as well as that he has a history of playing Booth like stride piano.

Parks, the Obie-winning author who became the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer for Drama, has been, from her first elliptical collages, a talent to watch. Some of her earlier works, like those of Sam Shepard, were too fragmentarily surreal for a general audience — the Foundling Father of The America Play probably struck some as more of a Confounding Father. A few recent efforts, among them the inner-city riff on The Scarlet Letter, In the Blood, have been almost too literal. Topdog/Underdog aims for the elusive target of tragicomic fable, archetypal yet accessible, and hits its mark.

Issue Date: April 30 - May 6, 2004
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