When the deck of cards lands on the takeout-food container, it’s a plea and a provocation. Two brothers, named Booth and Lincoln, have been amicably reminiscing, seated at a table made of milk crates and cardboard in a squalid lodging-house room. But when Booth plunks the cards down in front of his sibling, the mood shifts. Booth wants Lincoln to team up with him for a three-card monte scam. Lincoln resists. The goodwill cedes to a miasma of ambition, concern, resentment and aggression.
The turn-on-a-dime moment is just one of the layered, modulating sequences that enrich WSC Avant Bard’s first-rate “Topdog/Underdog.” Two actors, Louis E. Davis (Booth) and Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln), have located the humor, liveliness and intensity in Suzan-Lori Parks’s mythically resonant two-hander. And under the artful direction of DeMone Seraphin, the performers capitalize on the story’s fluctuating moods and engrossingly restless power dynamics.
Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Topdog/Underdog” tells of the up-and-down relationship between the brothers, who were abandoned by their parents when they were young. Lincoln was once a whiz at three-card monte, but he now has a steady job playing his namesake, the 16th president, in an arcade where customers pay to mock-assassinate him. He plays the role in whiteface: He and Booth are black. As the brothers bicker and scheme for the future, their story registers as bracingly personal, while also speaking in epic fashion about authenticity, power, freedom and America.
Davis is riveting as Booth, the younger brother, a brash shoplifter with big dreams. Whether he’s scattering stolen goods around the room with whoops of glee, swaying jazzily on his feet as he practices his cardsharp skills or taunting or cajoling his brother, Davis’s Booth radiates idiosyncratic personality and recklessness.
Hunter, who joined the production relatively late, has not yet fused seamlessly with his character. But on opening night, his performance became increasingly vivid and compelling. When Lincoln finally agreed to give a three-card monte lesson and Booth voiced a preference for building the hustle around the deuce of hearts, not spades (naive!), the withering stare the older brother flashed was priceless. (Danielle Harrow designed the apt costumes, including the 19th-century-esque frock coat and top hat that Lincoln wears for his arcade job.)
In a touch that adds to the show’s forcefulness, the audience essentially sits inside the brothers’ apartment. Nephelie Andonyadis’s stark set, with flattened-cardboard-box walls, emphasizes the siblings’ straitened circumstances, and thereby the stakes of the story. Meanwhile, with car horns and other hubbub, composer and sound designer e’Marcus Harper-Short conjures the city beyond the home.
The lighting design by John D. Alexander (who also did the projections) adds periodic stylization and ominousness. At one point, when Lincoln practices his three-card monte skills, the red light that floods around him is as hypnotic as his con-man patter.
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by DeMone Seraphin; properties design, Liz Long; fight choreographer, Casey Kaleba. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. $40. Through April 14 at Gunston Arts Center, Theater Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. 703-418-4808. wscavantbard.org.