The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Broadway’s ‘Topdog/Underdog’ pits two fine actors in blistering battle

Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer-winning play, under Kenny Leon’s direction, gets the searingly funny production it deserves

Corey Hawkins in “Topdog/Underdog” directed by Kenny Leon. (Marc Franklin)
4 min

NEW YORK — Make no mistake: After an evening on Broadway with Corey Hawkins, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and the electrifying theatrical crossfire of “Topdog/Underdog,” you’ll never again think of three-card monte as a mere money-grubbing street hustle.

Thanks to the wild imagination of Suzan-Lori Parks — who won a Pulitzer Prize for the play in 2002 — the game is engineered as the centerpiece in the blistering struggle between Hawkins’s Lincoln and Mateen’s Booth, brothers possessing little in life and even less to hope for.

Yes, Parks calls these Black characters Lincoln and Booth, with all the lethal portent that a clash of those identities connotes. To make the association even plainer, Parks gives Lincoln an utterly absurd day job: He works in an amusement arcade in an unnamed city, where his task is to sit (in stovepipe hat and whiteface) as the target in a shooting gallery, and die and die and die.

If “Topdog/Underdog” seemed prescient about violent dead-ends for the American underclass in its off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater 20 years ago, the version that officially opened Thursday night at the Golden Theatre comes across as even more ferociously of the moment. Under the direction of Kenny Leon — a longtime Broadway hand here masterminding the best production of his career — the fierce rivalry and protectiveness binding this Lincoln and Booth convulses in a shattering denouement.

The miscue in the original production that starred Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle and was directed by George Wolfe was to underline the symbolism too strenuously: The enterprise struck a somber chord, a distancing that overemphasized the surrealist elements. The irony of course is rich, the notion of a Black man dressing up and reenacting the death throes of the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. The cosmic joke Parks is playing with is that this Lincoln and Booth are not free at all, from hardship or adjacency to violence.

It turns out, though, that the joke is not only bitter, it can be funny, too. With the well-paired, comically gifted Hawkins and Mateen, Leon rightly treats the play as if he is handling dynamite.

You’ll be reminded of other dramas about the eternal contest for domination between brothers or their like: Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and especially Austin and Lee of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” On Arnulfo Maldonado’s smartly dualistic set — a shabby, one-room flat framed by billowing, pleated show curtains — Hawkins and Mateen go at each other with all the relish the situation demands. The older Lincoln, crashing in Booth’s pad, tries to school him in the sleight of hand of a card game with its own connections to America’s carnival culture.

Hawkins invests Lincoln with a scathingly funny pride of slickness, in his virtuosic manner of moving the three monte cards around a piece of cardboard mounted on milk crates. Mateen’s Booth may be exceptionally good at “boosting” retail goods — a hilarious display is made of one of Booth’s bounties from a clothing store — but he can’t match Lincoln’s card-sharpness. Booth instead reveals a talent for guessing where Lincoln leaves the single card with the black suit. It’s more evidence of their psychic symbiosis. The brothers are as linked for all time as that other Lincoln and Booth.

“Topdog/Underdog” works so well here because the fraternal dynamic feels authentic. The two men’s fates were sealed, long ago. Nothing outside their little flat, with the naked lightbulb and sad barcalounger and profanities scribbled on the hallway walls, holds anything positive for Lincoln and Booth, in terms of employment, or romance. And opportunity has turned its back on Lincoln and Booth so harshly that the brothers turn on each other.

Leon builds the case for the searing profundity of “Topdog/Underdog” scene by scene, as Hawkins and Mateen expertly escalate the tension between Lincoln and Booth, a division widened by childhood rootlessness and adult disappointment. As in the horrific meeting of their historic counterparts, their tragedy seems written in the cards.

Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Dede Ayitte; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Justin Ellington. About 2 hours 25 minutes. At Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York.