Classic ‘Topdog/Underdog’ transfixes at Round House Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning play may never have been more gut-busting comedic nor more gut-punching tragic.

“Who thuh man?!” “Who thuh man?!” So boast and taunt the two African American blood brothers vying for survival and dominance in Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize–winning two-hander now at Round House Theatre. Acclaimed as a modern classic when it premiered in 2001, the cuttingly calibrated script has lost none of its edge, and its story still transfixes. As director Jamil Jude’s electrifying production makes manifest, Parks’ play may never have been more gut-busting comedic nor more gut-punching tragic.

The brothers, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, share a painful family history: they were abandoned by their parents in their teens and were left with only a treasured photo album and 500 dollars each. They share a rivalry about survival: whether to steal and scam (Booth’s MO is three-card monte on milk cartons; it used to be Lincoln’s too, but he quit) or whether to hold down a demeaning job (Lincoln poses as Honest Abe in an arcade where customers play at assassinating him). The brothers also share a lack of success relating to women: Lincoln’s wife kicked him out (which is why he’s staying with his brother); the woman Booth imagines to be his girlfriend (“She so sweet she makes my teeth hurt”) isn’t interested. The only buddy they refer to, a three-card-monte accomplice, was shot by cops. They really have only each other…until they don’t.

Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln) in ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

The performances of Lincoln and Booth by Ro Boddie and Yao Dogbe respectively are extraordinary and revelatory. Dogbe’s Booth is the more animated and exuberant, adept at physical comedy; Boddie’s Lincoln is initially the more staid, the somber sibling five years older. Yet early in the play Lincoln opens, picking up a guitar and accompanying himself as he sings mournfully (and beautifully):

My dear mother left me, my fathers gone away …
My best girl, she threw me out into the street …
My luck was bad but now it turned to worse …

In flashes, we glimpse the conspiratorial joy the young brothers once had, as in a story about how they secretly gave their father’s car four flat tires. But there’s always a current of competition. For instance, Booth wants Lincoln to return to the three-card Monte hustle, which Lincoln excelled at and which could be, Booth says, “You and me against the world.” Lincoln resists. Are they a fraternal bond or must they be ranked? The question persists.

By turns the tension and tenderness between the brothers chills and warms the stage then chills again in a mesmerizing volley of emotions lobbed by two combatants at the top of their game. And while they’re at it, they uncover so much humor tucked in the script, so much downright delight, that we want them to be okay — both of them. For in this play’s universe of winners and losers, epitomized by a card con, we dearly don’t want one to be underdog, even though that’s the deck their fate has stacked.

TOP LEFT: Yao Dogbe (Booth); TOP RIGHT: Ro Boddie (Lincoln); ABOVE: Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln), in ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photos by Margot Schulman Photography.

The story is told in six scenes, and the play takes place in an apartment that in Meghan Raham’s ingeniously high-ceilinged scenic design has seen better days. The walls are worn, and a single bulb hangs from where a chandelier once did; in windows facing what seems a seedy street, neon signage can be seen. Nick Hernandez’s subtle sound design evokes a cityscape outside and apartment life next door (voices, a TV, baby crying). The sense of place in the production is palpable. In the gaps between scenes, director Jude has crafted fascinating wordless vignettes, incorporating Hernandez’s apt music tracks and Xavier Pierce’s dramatic lighting design.

Two program credits hint at the artful physicality in the performance: fight choreographer Casey Kaleba and card manipulation consultant Ryan Phillips. Clothed in Danielle Preston’s versatile costumes — the characters have countless wardrobe changes on stage — the show is solid on all creative counts. It really is a gem.

In Topdog/Underdog, Suzan Lori-Parks lays bare the tragedy in the drive to be on top, to be “thuh man.” And the seriously entertaining Round House Theatre production does that insight all the justice it desperately deserves.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

EXTENDED: Topdog/Underdog plays through June 30, 2024, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($46–$94), call the box office at 240-644-1100 or go online. (Learn more about special discounts here,accessibility here, and the Free Play program for students here.)

The playbill for Topdog/Underdog is online here.

Audio-described performance: Saturday, June 8 at 2:00 pm
Open-captioned performance: Saturday, June 15 at 2:00 pm
Mask-required performances: Tuesday, June 18 at 7:30 pm; Saturday, June 22 at 2:00 pm
Black Out Night performance on June 19, 2024

COVID Safety: Round House Theatre no longer requires that audience members wear masks for most performances. However, masks are required for the following performances: June 18 (evening) and June 22 (matinee). Round House’s complete Health and Safety policy is here.

Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jamil Jude

CAST
Ro Boddie: Lincoln
Yao Dogbe: Booth

CREATIVE TEAM
Scenic Designer: Meghan Raham
Costume Designer: Danielle Preston
Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce
Sound Designer: Nick Hernandez
Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba
Properties Coordinator: Chelsea Dean
Casting Director: Sarah Cooney
Dramaturg: Naysan Mojgani
Card Manipulation Consultant: Ryan Phillips
Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.

1 COMMENT

  1. You really enticed me with this review, John. You are ever a writer bringing insightful detail and empathy to the creative intentions of artists. I can’t wait to get back to the East Coast and head up to Roundhouse.

    Susan G

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