An inescapable claustrophobia prevails in ion theatre’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. All the action in the two-hour drama unfolds in a drab, barely furnished boardinghouse room where brothers Lincoln and Booth reside. (If those names strike you as ironic, be assured it’s strictly intentional.) Lincoln (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and Booth (Laurence Brown) are also the only characters in Parks’ play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. They’re trapped together by the fates and by the confines of the little room they share. In Ion’s black-box space, you are trapped with them. It can be mesmerizing, as when Lincoln, an old pro at Three Card Monte, shows his brother his stuff; and it can be harrowing, especially when the more volatile Booth is on the verbal offensive. But you just can’t look away.
Older brother Lincoln, desolate and ditched by his wife, Cookie, is working at an arcade where he dresses up like Honest Abe – in stovepipe hat, beard and whiteface – and allows customers to “shoot” him for kicks. Booth is a petty thief, a smooth (or so he thinks) operator and an aspiring Monte dealer. He’s got a girlfriend, “Amazing Grace,” but we only see Booth with the girlie magazines he hides underneath the boardinghouse room’s one bed (Lincoln sleeps in a chair). Booth may consider himself Topdog to Linc’s Underdog, but in fact these two are both underdogs, and we intuit very early on that they’re both going under.
Lawrence and Brown are major presences on stage – Linc in his sad-eyed weariness, Brown in his swaggering physicality. And most of the time, Parks’ astringent dialogue is enough to keep the drama moving forward, even in such a static setting. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has crafted a mini-world of melancholy and ultimately, mayhem. (What do you expect from a play with characters named Lincoln and Booth?)
The Lincoln/Booth metaphor is what it is, and the Pulitzer committee obviously responded to it. But the strength of Parks’ characters, and of Lawrence and Brown’s performances, is in the realization of two underdogs’ desperation, two brothers’ inexorable blood ties. In the end, you must decide whether those ties have been broken and at what cost.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.