“Topdog Underdog” tells the fantasy and fakery of the underclass

By Lucy Komisar

Corey Hawkins as Lincoln and Yahya Abdul-Mateen H as Booth, photo Marc J. Franklin.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ plays is about fantasy and fakery, the desperation and dysfunction of the underclass. The brothers Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen H) and Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) had parents who cheated on each other, left when the sons were 13 and 16. He had women on the side, she had her “Thursday man.” “Why do you think they left us? They were struggling.” Well, a lot of parents are struggling.

The father ironically named the kids Lincoln and Booth, as a joke or maybe to predict what could happen to them. They fell through the cracks of whatever social system existed 20 years ago when the 2002 play was produced and labeled “the present.” We don’t know if they finished school, if the system attempted to save them.

Corey Hawkins as Lincoln, photo Marc J. Franklin.

Lincoln became a successful 3-card-monte street hustler, if that is a measure of success, and got married, but he cheated on his wife, split, got a job playing a costumed white-faced Lincoln in an arcade where people would “shoot” him dead. Booth became a shoplifter. Always wanted to be 3-card-monte hustler like his brother.

We see them in Booth’s dingy one-room apartment where Lincoln is his boarder. It’s unclear why if Lincoln gets a salary, he can’t get his own place.

The whole story is about fantasy, not just the white-faced Lincoln but their fantasies about themselves and their lives and their futures. Not clear if we are supposed to feel sorry for them. Lincoln at least is honest about his condition. He doesn’t want to do the card hustle again. Director Kenny Leon makes the fantasy effectively real.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen H as Booth, photo Marc J. Franklin.

Booth is an utter fake who claims he will be great at the card scam and imagines that an old girlfriend is in love with him. Some of his acting out scenes are pretty vulgar. Includes an invented sex story about the girlfriend. His fantasies take shape: his shoplifting includes blue and brown suits he lays out ready to wear.

What will reality bring? Booth wants them to hustle cards together. Lincoln doesn’t want to get fired. It’s a story of desperation, perhaps of losers, perhaps of people who have no clue to another way out.

But it’s all on one note, on one level of emotion and action. You expect something to rise and fall, to be surprised, to see change. But nothing changes and nothing surprises. And when the end comes, it is all predictable. Of course, Booth will shoot Lincoln, the predictable dénouement of a play that goes on for nearly 3 hours.

What is the point, the message? The desperation of kids born of dysfunctional families, of parents who cheat on each other, and who fell through the cracks of whatever social services should have rescued them? Should we feel sorry for them, understand them? Or brush them away as the detritus of failed families?

The actors are terrific. The script becomes soporific.

Topdog/Underdog.” Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Kenny Leon. Golden Theatre, 252 W 45th St. NYC.  Runtime 2:25. Opened Oct 20, 2022; closes Jan 15, 2023. Review on NY Theatre Wire.

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