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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Top Dog/Underdog
By Macey Levin

She said it again. That I should look out for you. So who's gonna look out for me?— Booth
Deacon Griffin-Pressley, Bryce Michael Wood (Photo: Daniel Rader)
Suzan-Lori Parks' play Topdog/Underdog was first produced at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre in 2001; it then traveled to Broadway where it received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Parks has also received a MacArthur Genius Award.

The play centers on two black brothers, Lincoln (Bryce Mitchell Wood) and Booth (Deaon Griffin-Pressley,) their names obviously replete with symbolism, who share a seedy one-room apartment. Lincoln, the elder, had been a successful three-card-monte hustler plying the streets of New York. Finally deciding to quit due to the stress of the illegal game, he has found a job as, ironically, a Lincoln imitator at an arcade where he sits as if in Ford's Theatre while customers stand in back of him, a la John Wilkes Booth, and fire cap gun shots recreating Lincoln's assassination. The younger brother wants to be what Linc had been believing that he could make a lot of fast money. This is the setup for a story that reveals their past lives and current conflicts.

The boys were abandoned by both parents when Linc was sixteen and Booth eleven. Each parent left the boys five hundred dollars to help them get started. Through conversation it is determined that the mother was a prostitute, the father a violent alcoholic. Now in their twenties, life hasn't been easy for the brothers as they hit lows with very few highs. Booth doesn't really know what it means to work while he tries to perfect his three-card style, which is not working out well. In one of the many arguments they have Booth tells Linc their mother told him to take care of the older brother when it should have been the other way around, something he resents.

Booth has a girlfriend, Grace, whom he wants to impress while Lincoln's wife Cookie has thrown him out of their home. Linc, still playing the more experienced older brother tries to dissuade the younger from hustling on the street. Unable to change Booth's mind he reluctantly accepts the challenge to exhibit his form at the game. They bet whatever cash they have, including the money from his mother Booth has been hiding. The various aspersions they sling at each other are often replaced by the love they still feel. The game changes that.

Directed by Regge Life, the play‘s tensions escalate until the impelling but predictable conclusion. Though there is a goodly amount of repetitive and redundant dialogue, the exchanges are crisp and well-phrased. Life moves the two actors fluidly on a relatively small stage creating interesting and vital stage pictures that support the evolving conflicts. Griffin-Pressley and Wood are crackling in their interactions as they openly express their love and concern for each other while being wary of the other's intentions. They, along with director Life, have found both the humor and the threat in their personalities. Each has lengthy monologues with which they hold the stage as they reveal their inner needs and demons.

Cristina Todesco's claustrophobic set mirrors the situation in which the brothers find themselves. The apartment doesn't give them much room to move just as they are caught in a life that offers limited expectations. The other technical elements — costumes by Stella Schwart, lighting by Matthew Miller and sound by Brendan Doyle — support the atmosphere and tone of the play.

Topdog/Underdog is not easy to see but it is worth the experience.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Regge Life
Cast: Deaon Griffin-Pressley (Booth) Bryce Michael Wood (Lincoln)
Scenic Design: Cristina Todesco
Costume Design: Stella Schwartz
Lighting Design: Matthew Miller
Sound Design: Brendan Doyle
Fight Consultant: Allyn Burrows
Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly
Assistant Stage Manager: Maegan A Conroy
Running Time: Two hours-thirty minutes; one intermission
Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA
From 8/13/19; closing 9/8/19
Reviewed by Macey Levin at the August 16th performance

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