The fates of two Afro-American brothers, one an improbable Lincoln impersonator in white face, the other a “wannabe” three card monte hustler, collide in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” now in a powerful, often comic, production at South Coast Repertory.
In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Parks draws on the Biblical Cain and Abel rivalry. Here, one brother, the grounded, stable Lincoln ( a powerful presence as played by Chris McClarin) and the hyper, unpredictable Booth (a fast trash-talking Larry Bates) share a run-down apartment. They were betrayed as youngsters when their parents ran off leaving them to fend for themselves. They are now, as adults, wary of trusting anyone.
Other aspects of the play symbolize the underlying prejudice in society.
The fact of sibling rivalry is established early-on when they argue over who is going to serve their Chinese takeout. It is important that no one “one-ups” the other.
At an arcade, brother Lincoln impersonates the President in the theater on his fateful final night. (He works made up in white because the owner hires him for less than a white person.) Previously he had been a scam artist on the street, but now he wants to go straight.
The fact that he is a black portraying a white is made significant when he describes the oddities of regular customers who come to assassinate. One, strangely, “shoots on the left, whispers on the right.’’
Brother Booth is unemployed. He hangs around practicing cards, wanting to become adept at conning. Meanwhile, he steals from stores.
A very funny scene shows Booth coming home, his clothes looking very padded. He precedes to undress, taking off layers of shoplifted goods, which he divides up between the two. He wants to look good for his date with his girlfriend Grace; Lincoln seeks to be “spruced-up” for looking for a better job.
Running through the play are the rhythms and poetry of the three-card monte spiel. Director Seret Scott has the players’ routine choreographed to perfection. A peak comes in the second act when Lincoln gives Booth lessons in how to work the pitch, going deep into the psychological ramifications of snagging a “mark.”
The action picks up tension in the second act. Lincoln receives bad news from the arcade owner, and Booth’s perceived love affair with Grace seems to unravel. All this leads up to a jolting conclusion with hidden facts about the two revealed.
Scenic design by Shaun Motley perfectly captures the shabby, run-down city tenement (no water, no toilet). Furniture consists of a soiled bed and a worn recliner. Crates are used for the dining table and chairs, and decor items are a potpourri of stolen objects.
Jaymi Smith’s lighting design is also very effective. In climactic scenes lights fade from bright to subtle amber shades.
“Topdog/Underdog” can be seen through Jan. 29 on SCR’s Julianne Argyros Stage in Costa Mesa.