Alone in a grungy apartment, at a table set with stolen candles, plates and forks, a young man named Booth waits for a woman who never shows. She's his supposed girlfriend, Grace, the squeeze he's boasted about to his older brother, Lincoln. And though she's now six hours late, he resolutely refuses, against all evidence, to believe she's stood him up.
Booth is one of those wasted young men who've been burned by life at every turn; Grace is not the first female figure to have abandoned him. After years of disillusionment, however, he has reached a point where his battered ego, his pummeled heart can absorb no more brutality. One more of the world's shabby hustles, and Booth -- like the historical John Wilkes -- may feel free to inflict some pain of his own.
The explosion of Booth's bottled-up frustration and hurt fuels the final, terrible acts of Suzan-Lori Parks's "Topdog/Underdog," which is receiving a wrenching Washington premiere at Studio Theatre. The play won Parks the Pulitzer Prize and moved last year from a sold-out run at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater to Broadway, where it never quite found an audience. The tack taken by its director, George C. Wolfe, was perhaps an obstacle; he tended to underline Parks's allegorical flourishes at the expense of the raw, brotherly rivalry and resentment at the play's center.
Anchored by Jahi Kearse's smashing performance as Booth, and the sly, charismatic Lincoln of Thomas W. Jones II, Joy Zinoman's production turns the tables on the New York version. Washington, as a result, is getting a more emotionally supple "Topdog," one in which a spectator can become satisfyingly invested. As she has demonstrated before, most recently in last season's "The Play About the Baby" by Edward Albee, Zinoman has a knack for distilling the human drama in intellectually adventurous theater. Her jeweler's-glass approach works especially well in the close quarters of Studio's spaces; the characters' relationships, in all their facets and flaws, often feel obsessively pored over. This facility serves Zinoman well in "Topdog." The author's overlong first act -- redeemed by a taut second -- includes passages that send the piece on patience-straining, elliptical detours. Nevertheless, the actors establish such a complexly symbiotic bond that the play seems to deepen even when the narrative is standing still.
Like "True West," Sam Shepard's two-character play about warring brothers, "Topdog/Underdog" explores the multiple layers of sibling competition and intimacy -- all that love wrapped in hate wrapped in love. But "Topdog" is a more complicated and heartbreaking work. Its soul is nourished by the sad, shared loneliness and disappointment of this black latter-day Booth and Lincoln, so named by their long-vanished father. "It was his idea of a joke," Jones's Lincoln says of their christenings. It turns out to be more than a joke, of course. The names not only suggest a tragic, eternal linkage but also are a reminder of the oppressive roots of African American history, a legacy that neither of the brothers has managed to shake off.
The brothers are, in fact, destiny's victims, doomed to play out roles that are all but preordained. Left at tender ages by their parents, Booth and Lincoln eke out lives defined by scams and petty thievery. (Booth's only sentimental keepsake is a photo album filled with snapshots of the family that fell apart.) Their dreams are as small-time as their crimes. Booth wants nothing more than to emulate his older brother in perfecting his skills at the art of that grimmest of street hustles, three-card monte.
The game is a motif to which the playwright returns again and again in "Topdog." Booth's fortunes have sunk so low -- the only reading material in his cold-water flat are the stacks of porn stashed under his bed -- that being a monte dealer sounds to him like a career. He pleads with Lincoln, who pays the rent in return for a place to sleep, to pass on the knowledge, but Jones's character has moved on to more honest, if not more enriching, work.
It is Parks's wild conceit that this Lincoln earns his living off the miserable fate of the more famous one. He's a professional target. In the shooting gallery of a local arcade, he sits all day in whiteface, wearing a stovepipe hat and beard. The 16th president is silenced by gun-toting tourists over and over and over. The haunting associations give "Topdog" a tragicomic flavor; Lincoln knows his life is an absurdity. (There's no top dog in "Topdog.") Though the job is humiliating, he's comforted by the knowledge that he's still got it over Booth, who cannot keep a woman and lacks anything like a desire for steady work. In the classic dynamic at the bottom of the food chain, his consolation is that there's someone worse off than himself.
The roles' New York originators, Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle, both excellent actors, were not wholly convincing as desperate brothers. Cheadle, in particular, was too worldly and self-composed for the younger Booth. Kearse, on the other hand, comes across as an ideal Booth, full of naive bluster, a bundle of nervous energy, eager to prove his manhood yet comically inept at grown-up behavior. Anticipating the arrival of Grace, he vainly attempts to push all of those skin magazines under his narrow bed, only to have them slide out the other side.
Jones's physically graceful, smooth-talking Lincoln is a nice balance for Kearse's twitchy Booth. He really is the reptilian master of the bait-and-switch. It's a truly nefarious sort of mind game he plays with Booth, an extreme version of the number every older brother does on a younger. And of course it all blows up on him when he puts his powers of deception to work on his defenseless, explosive brother.
All the groundwork pays off: What had previously seemed a conclusion out of a playwriting handbook has now acquired a harrowing poignancy. It lands like a knife to the spine.
Russell Metheny's set, Michael Lincoln's lighting and Reggie Ray's costumes contribute to a sense of drab, harsh reality, and Neil McFadden's sound design envelops the theater in the wistful murmurs of a forlorn guitar. This is a production that crackles and moans in all the right ways.
Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through Oct. 19 at Studio Theatre, 14th and P streets NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.