Home > Carol Davis, Theatre, United States of America > Topdog/Underdog features a Lincoln versus a Booth

Topdog/Underdog features a Lincoln versus a Booth

November 14, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Carol Davis

LA JOLLA, California–Sibling rivalry is as old and as common as was in biblical days: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. Throughout history, in literature and in theatre (Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For the Misbegotten and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire,Tracy Letts’ August: Osage Count, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and The Price reviewed last year) the beat goes on.

Susan Lori-Parks has another in the offing, her Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog now in a stunning production in the Arthur Wagner Theatre on the UCSD Campus through the 14th. It’s a short run but well worth catching.

Briefly, and I don’t use the word lightly because director Nadine George-Graves led us through a two hour and fifty minute production, two brothers Lincoln or Link (Boeman Wright) and Booth (Johnny Gill) share an apartment. Their names, Lincoln and Booth, hint at their relationship. Booth is a hustler and petty thief whose goal it is to become a big time card operator like his brother once was. Link is trying to make on the straighter side of the law as a Lincoln impersonator complete with beard, bow tie, stovepipe hat and whiteface, at a tourist attraction in an arcade in some unidentified city. He is pretending to be watching a play. Customers pay money to take pop shots at him with a cap gun, in an effort to ‘assassinate’ Lincoln in a look alike Ford Theatre.

The room they share is in Booth’s name in some run down boarding house. The money they use to pay the rent, buy food is from the little pay Link gets posing as Lincoln. His job is in danger of being phased out by life-sized mannequins. Booth makes the rules and Link, whose personality is the calmer of the two, follows the rules his brother sets. He pretty much plays into Booth’s mercurial personality as well.

While his aspirations are for the good life, the American Dream of an honest (Honest Abe”?) lifestyle, Booth continuously goads him back into the world of ‘throwing’ the cards. Teach me, watch me, trick me he dares. Abandoned by their mother when they were eleven and six (Link being the oldest) and by their father three years later, the two have been left to fend for themselves well into their thirties. Booth looks up to Link and Link feels the responsibility of being the oldest brother. They bond not so much by their financial needs, although it certainly plays a big part, but by their collective memories of mental abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, co dependency and possibly some good times. Theirs is an unholy, dangerous but persistent alliance made possible only because Booth always has to be topdog and Link plays underdog so well.

That however, changes from moment to moment as the competition between the two ebbs and flows. In one scene Link has brought home Chinese food. They argue over the smallest of things like who will eat what. Then the conversation goes back to cards, an obsession with Booth and a thing of the past with Link, Link puts his foot down but Booth persists. And the beat goes on as the two struggle to make it as they banter, push the envelope, give in, laugh and even share an embrace or two.

But things turn around fast when Link looses his job and now they are both unemployed. The prospect of going back to the card scam is looking real. Then the signs of the times change. Link is back to looking spiffy (no more Lincoln outfit) and Booth goads Link into showing him the winning moves and finally getting on board with him, possibly becoming partners (in crime).

In a daredevil challenge Booth prods Link into betting ‘real’ money in a real card game to show him he is smarter and better versed in the art of cards than Link knows. In a final self-assured gesture he puts his inheritance money (from his mother) on the line to be used against the money Link has put down from his recent winnings. The showdown begins. Booth circles the table watching every move Link makes. Who is the smarter, more clever, cunning, subtler and talented of the two? You know.

History rears its ugly head in Topdog/Underdog in the final and breathtaking scene of Park’s dark drama. After almost three hours of bantering back and fourth between the brothers and anticipating the outcome, no one in the audience could have counted on such a strong and passionate outburst of emotion coming from either one. Hold on to your hats though. Both Gill and Wright are perfectly cast as Booth and Lincoln.

Gill exudes energy, charisma, self-confidence and charm. Wright is tall, lanky, likeable, focused, somewhat downtrodden and soft spoken. If there is a case to be made for opposites, this is it and it works like a well-oiled clock as these two characters play off one another piling on one agonizing scene after another.

Watching as Booth taunts Link while describing his ‘having Link’s wife’ because he couldn’t ‘do’ her is an exercise in back stabbing pain. Yet we see another side of Link after he comes home from winning at his card game. He does a little dance shuffle. That’s more energy than we’ve seen from him all night. But the finality of the evening is the gut-wrenching wail that comes out of Gill after he realizes that he performed his final act as Link’s brother and now must make it on his own. Life’s lessons come hard especially when the deck is stacked against you as Parks so convincingly shows us.

Credits also go to Christine Crook for her sparse set design of a dingy room with a bed and stashed Playboy magazines , a lounge chair, milk crates and a cardboard top acting as a kitchen table wit a hanging window looking out onto the street. Sara

Cogan’s lighting design with clusters of light bulbs hanging from the ceiling is perfect. Hats off to the UCSD and its Theatre and Dance Department for making this an evening, the first of their fall season that will not be forgotten. The theatre is located on the school campus across from the Mandel Weiss Theatre complex. There is swearing, so be forewarned. For more info see www.theatre.ucsd.edu/season

See you at the theatre.
*
Davis is a San Diego-based theatre critic.

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