Ever since Cain and Abel, the competition between brothers has been fierce, whether it is for approval of a compassionate God or, in the case of Topdog/Underdog by African-American playwright and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks, the attention of two feckless parents who have abandoned their sons with an inheritance of only $500 each, tightly wrapped in one of their mother’s stockings. That $1,000 is all that stands between them and a precarious hand-to-mouth existence on the mean streets of one of this nation’s largest cities.\
The current PlayMakers Repertory Company presentation of this dark comedy, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a real delight. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Brandon J. Dirden, who play a couple of battling brothers named Lincoln and Booth, not only bring both those oddball characters fully and completely to life, but also put a little extra pizzazz into their performances.
Like his namesake, Henderson’s Lincoln is a man of impressive wisdom and wit. Lincoln is the breadwinner, swallowing his pride and donning whiteface makeup to impersonate Old Abe in a local arcade.
Dirden’s Booth, also like his namesake, is a hothead and prone to violent outbursts against anyone and everyone who thwarts his fantastical plans of replenishing the brothers’ almost empty financial coffers by resuming their once-lucrative Three-Card Monte game and bilking unsuspecting marks of their hard-earned dollars.
The only problem is, Lincoln is the master of the Three-Card Monte scheme — but he doesn’t want to resume that particular hustle. Booth, on the other hand, cannot throw the cards like a pro. Indeed, he has two left hands and a jittery demeanor which, combined, mean that he has zero chance of convincing the crowd to bet on his game — or beating them when they do bet.
Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges helps Tyrone Henderson and Brandon J. Dirden polish their compelling characterizations of Lincoln and Booth until they gleam like precious gems. Her savvy staging extracts each and every humorous nugget in Suzan-Lori Parks’ hilarious offbeat script for Topdog/Underdog.
The exemplary acting and imaginative direction, combined with set designer Marion Williams’ gritty recreation of the brothers’ cramped and cluttered one-room apartment and the creative contributions of lighting designer Justin Townsend, costume designer Jan Chambers, properties mistress Cheralyn Lambeth, and sound designer Michèl Marrano, help make this PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Topdog/Underdog another big winner for the professional theater-in-residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The audience for the show’s Feb. 2nd matinee saluted this exceptional production with a spirited standing ovation which subsequent audiences will no doubt echo.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Topdog/Underdog Thursday, Feb. 7 and 21, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 8 and 22, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 9 and 23, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday, Feb. 12 and 26, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Feb. 13 and 27, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16 and March 1, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 17 and March 2, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. Note 1: There will be free post-show discussions on Feb. 13th and March 2nd. Note 2: There will be an all-access performance at 8 p.m. on Feb. 26th, which will be audio-described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/), and also features Braille playbills, large-print playbills, and a tactile tour (arranged in advance) for patrons with impaired vision. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/. Suzan-Lori Parks: http://www.barclayagency.com/parks.html. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=10998. Stage on Screen: The Topdog Diaries (2002 TV Documentary, Directed by Oren Jacoby): http://imdb.com/title/tt0378800/.