The latest NYC production in a year filled with Pulitzer Prize-winning shows and the first-ever Broadway revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog is now playing a limited engagement at the John Golden Theatre, on the 20th anniversary of its receipt of the prestigious award in 2002. It weaves a devastating tale of two Black brothers, abandoned by their parents as young teenagers, jilted by their wife and girlfriend, and left with only each other to rely on, as they deal with poverty, work, rejection, racism, and all the emotions they engender, in a comi-tragic two-hander that’s laugh-out-loud absurd until it turns deadly.
Named Lincoln and Booth as a joke by their father, the elder Linc is temporarily living with his younger brother after being thrown out by his wife. Previously a master at the street hustle Three-card Monte until his friend was shot dead by an irate mark, he provides their only income by working a “legit” but humiliating job in an arcade shooting game, in the role of Abraham Lincoln in whiteface, but is soon to be replaced by a wax dummy. Booth, an expert at shoplifting, aspires to becoming a card shark like his brother was, so tries his hand at the con game, assumes the new name 3-Card, and hopes to persuade Linc to return to his former glory by teaming up with him and running the scam. He also convinces himself that his ex-girlfriend Grace will come back and marry him, once he has the level of income it will provide. But his dreams fail, and he reacts.
Consummately directed by Tony-winner Kenny Leon with an eye on both the riotous humor and the increasing underlying tension, the faster-paced first act is played for laughs, with some unsettling ever-present foreshadows of what’s to come. It all erupts in the second act, with a shattering conclusion that will leave you shaken to the core. Corey Hawkins as Lincoln and Yahya Abdul-Matteen II as Booth turn in extraordinary performances that capture the bravado and the pain of their characters, damaged by their past and thwarted in the present, as they drink together, talk, joke, and brag in rapid-fire street lingo, clash, insult, and compete with one another, reveal the backstory of their desperate lives, and elicit empathy and compassion for them and the cards they were dealt.
Abdul-Matten is hilarious as he awkwardly practices and celebrates his progress with the cards, shares the graphic details of his sexual encounter with Grace, and removes layer upon layer of the clothing he stole for himself and Linc. Hawkins is sidesplitting in his histrionic enactments of Lincoln’s death, his improvised blues song on vocal and guitar in response to Booth, and his exuberant return to the scamming at which he excels. And both deliver the profoundly troubled psychology and intense feelings of their deeply hurt characters as they reflect on the parents and women who left them, disclose their jealousy and competitiveness toward one another (evoking the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel), and do battle over a high-stakes game of Three-card-Monte that seals their fate.
The creative team provides a superb artistic design that supports every element of Parks’ narrative to perfection. Costumes by Dede Ayite are integral to the plot points of Linc’s job as his namesake president’s impersonator and to Booth’s skill at shoplifting. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is a believably rundown, cramped, and ill-furnished room, framed by foreboding lavish gold stage curtains modeled after those in DC’s historic Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated. Lighting by Allen Lee Hughes and sound by Justin Ellington further support the moods and actions of the story and characters.
In addition to Topdog/Underdog’s status as a Pulitzer Prize winner, this powerful revival should garner more well-deserved awards for the outstanding cast, direction, and design.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission.
Topdog/Underdog plays through Sunday, January 15, 2023, at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $74-240, plus fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. Masks are optional in the theater.