“Topdog/Underdog” Depicts an Uneasy Relationship Between Two Brothers; Princeton Summer Theater Succeeds with the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Drama
“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Topdog/Underdog.” Directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet, the play runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Brothers Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan, left) and Booth (Travis Raeburn, right) stare each other down during a game of three-card monte. (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
Princeton Summer Theater is concluding its 2019 season with a gripping production of Topdog/Underdog. This edgy, character-driven drama, which depicts the relationship between two African American brothers, is an apt fit for a season whose mission has been to “explore love in all its forms.”
Topdog/Underdog played on Broadway in 2002. It earned playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award.
Lincoln is a former three-card monte hustler who now earns money at a carnival arcade by impersonating the famous president for whom he is named. This entails wearing whiteface and pretending to be shot.
Booth — the younger brother — has not given up three-card monte, and aspires to emulate his brother’s former success at the game. In his apartment he ceaselessly practices dealing cards, and luring potential victims with smooth chatter, although we will discover that in the past there was a crucial moment in which his skill drastically fell short of his ambition. He persists in attempting to persuade Lincoln to abandon his current occupation and join him.
We learn that Lincoln and Booth were given their names by their father, as “a joke.” Topdog/Underdog examines the issue of identities — particularly those that have been given to us — and the extent to which we accept them, or work to change them. In a key moment, Lincoln offers to help Booth find a job; Booth retorts that he is not going to pretend to be something he is not. Booth is eager to change his identity, which he plans to do by changing his name. In a contrasting scene, Lincoln puts on the fake beard that he wears for his job, and wearily regards himself in a mirror.
The program notes include a preface in which Parks details Topdog/Underdog’s origins in one of her previous works, The America Play. In the earlier show an African American man “sits in an arcade impersonating Abraham Lincoln and letting people come and play at shooting him dead,” says the playwright. “Another black Lincoln impersonator, unrelated to the first guy, came to mind: a new character for a new play. This time I would just focus on his home life.”
Parks adds that her interest in three-card monte stems from the fact that her husband occasionally played it in between sets, when he performed in the Muddy Waters Blues Band. Three-card monte is a confidence game in which victims are tricked into betting on their ability to find a “money card” among three playing cards that are facing down.
Lincoln has moved in with Booth after being thrown out by his ex-wife. Booth often reminds him that this living arrangement is supposed to be temporary, although Lincoln is the sole breadwinner.
Booth is obsessed with courting a woman named Grace. We get a sense of the brothers’ impoverishment when Booth carefully budgets a meager amount of cash, allotting himself a bit of money to spend on a date. His incessant boasts about successful trysts with Grace are dubious, given that we never actually see her.
When the brothers were teenagers they were abandoned by both of their parents. Each parent left one brother an “inheritance” of $500 in cash. Lincoln already has spent his money, while Booth has saved his. In the heat of a climactic argument Booth challenges Lincoln to three-card monte, and Lincoln goads Booth into betting his inheritance on the outcome of the game.
Travis Raeburn brings swagger and slick panache to the role of Booth. His delivery of the character’s monologues is charismatic and almost musical, particularly when Booth challenges unseen onlookers — members of the audience? — to a game of three-card monte. He also brings seemingly limitless energy; Booth almost always is in motion, and his rapid movements suggest a tightly-coiled spring.
Nathaniel J. Ryan provides the required contrast to this, in his portrayal of Lincoln. His demeanor is more reserved, especially in the early scenes. Where Booth almost always is in motion, Lincoln tends to be static, and more deliberate in his use of movement. This gives his performance room to change when a plot turn causes the character to evolve; when Lincoln’s circumstances lead him to regain his interest in three-card monte, Ryan’s performance echoes that of Raeburn.
Director Lori Elizabeth Parquet is strategic in her use of space. Lincoln and Booth are weary of each other, and early in the show Parquet accentuates this by placing them at opposite ends of the stage. Throughout the show Booth often intrudes on Lincoln’s personal space, and is rebuffed, a concept that is reversed during a climactic argument between the brothers.
This makes room for a significant contrast when the characters draw closer to each other — emotionally and physically. But there is a late scene, in which they are physically close, which forms one of the tensest segments in the play. The sparring brothers are destined to collide, in every sense, and the staging underlines that fact.
A program note acknowledges that artist Kehinde Wiley’s work has been “a significant influence on the production design … particularly in the set’s distinctive floral wallpaper.” Wiley is “perhaps most famous for his portrait of Barack Obama for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.”
The set by Rakesh Potluri does indeed draw on Wiley’s work, but it also echoes the duality between the brothers by flanking the stage with two walls covered with differently colored paper. The furniture includes a bed and a reclining chair. Booth generally takes the bed while Lincoln is given the chair; this is switched in a subtle, but crucial, shift in power dynamics.
If the scenery evokes Wiley’s paintings, so do Tramaine Gray’s costumes, which use a color palette — largely black and white — consistent with the outfit worn by Obama in Wiley’s portrait. In keeping with the focus on changing identities, the costumes are often in flux, as the brothers constantly change clothes. There is frequent juxtaposition of jackets and slacks against casual, loose-fitting outfits.
Music — particularly that of the hip-hop duo Outkast — is integral to the play. Booth exuberantly sings and dances to it as he prepares for a date with Grace. Music also provides one of the first significant moments of connection between the brothers, as Lincoln sings while Booth percussively stamps his feet.
The sound design by Naveen Bhatia heightens the dramatic tension, particularly toward the end. There is a plot turn that audiences may anticipate, but it is largely to Bhatia’s credit that the sequence still comes as a shock, and has considerable power.
Megan Berry’s lighting is effective in illustrating the passage of time, in an attractive sequence in which nighttime transitions into morning. It is a rare moment of peace in a play that is characterized by tension.
With Topdog/Underdog Princeton Summer Theater ends its season on a high note, thanks to outstanding performances by both of its actors, as well as a distinct unity of script and production.
Topdog/Underdog will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through August 18. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/topdogunderdog.