note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Lincoln … Kes Khemnu
Booth … Joe Wilson, Jr.
Booth … Kes Khemnu
Lincoln … Joe Wilson, Jr.
When a playwright creates believable characters, lively dialogue and an engrossing plot, the Beautiful can be forged from the Not-So, in this case, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, now at Trinity Repertory Company --- it may be yet another dead end in the American Dream but it is beautiful, it is ours and it is to be embraced.
Three years ago I attended a dazzling B. U. production of Ms. Parks’ tragifarce VENUS, where an African woman with enormous buttocks is displayed as a side-show freak; the evening earned a co-Addison for production and director. TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is more realistic but with symbolic overtones --- two brothers named Lincoln and Booth share a hell-hole in pre-Giuliani New York: Lincoln, a former wiz at three-card monte, a sidewalk game of chance, now dresses up as his namesake President to be a shooting target at an arcade (a nod to Mr. Sondheim’s ASSASSINS?); his younger brother Booth, who excels at five-finger discounts, now wants to take up the cards, himself. Lincoln steadfastly refuses to get involved but old habits return, leading to an inevitable showdown (Lincoln and Booth --- dig?). What could have been sordid and depressing is buoyed up by Ms. Parks’ tough, jazzy street-humor and a fleeting lyricism --- despite their grumblings, these brothers are high on Life --- her audiences would be appalled at such casual amorality if they weren’t laughing so much.
Kes Khemnu and Joe Wilson, Jr. alternate roles from performance to performance (no doubt, to divvy up the play’s intensity). Mr. Wilson, who earned an Addison for his dapper turn in the company’s AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, has more whistles and bells than does the softer-grained Mr. Khemnu --- an entire percussion section played against a single cello --- but thanks to Kent Gash’s deft orchestration the evening ends in a solid tie; should you attend both switcheroos, you can compare and contrast to your heart’s content but you can’t go wrong with only one as neither cast is a carbon copy of the other. Physically, the actors are most at home in the Clubs Cast: the taller, warmer Mr. Khemnu gives Lincoln the sad dignity of a defrocked minister (his card spiel is pure carnival barker) and Mr. Wilson’s Booth is a cunning, hotheaded runt who mouths off before he thinks. The Diamonds Cast is more psychological: in Mr. Wilson’s hands, Lincoln is a small, angry man, once a king in his day but now crushed and forgotten (his spiel is done in sing-song), and Mr. Khemnu turns Booth into an overgrown kid; his Eternal Dropout is funnier but no less formidable.
Eugene Lee has designed a caged setting that underlines the obvious --- the brothers are trapped and ever circling, circling in a growing rivalry --- and there are some sad, lovely guitar-blues played through the sound system that gently lift TOPDOG/UNDERDOG out of the everyday and into an urban Fable.