Through April 9th
Huntington Theatre Company
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Two African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth are sharing a one room flat. Lincoln has left his wife, or she has left him. Booth has taken him in and he is sleeping on the recliner. By day Lincoln plays Abraham Lincoln at the local arcade where people can pay for the privilege of assassinating him. “It’s a good sit down job with benefits.” Booth makes his way by boosting (shoplifting), and he is good at it.
In Topdog/Underdog now playing at the Huntington Theatre in Boston we see the two brothers as they deal with the cards they have been handed. In this case the cards are from a deck used for playing Three Card Monte, a slight of hand game used to hustle people out of money. Lincoln used to be very good at the game, one of the best, but gave it up after seeing a close friend shot to death by a disgruntled loser. Booth wants to learn how to be good at it and have the two of them team up and make a fortune. A life Lincoln does not want to return to, or at least he is trying to convince himself he doesn’t want to.
In the course of what seems to be a pretty basic story about two brothers making the best of what they have there are plenty of laughs. The quick banter between the two, Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Booth (Matthew J. Harris), is sharp and funny. There is a scene where Booth does a striptease taking off layer after layer of clothing he has boosted, providing two classy suits, one for himself and one for his brother. Matthew J. Harris has all the moves in a dance that seems it will never end, nor do we want it to.
While there are plenty of laughs, as things progress we begin to see the pain the two are in. Frustration, discouragement, loneliness, and anger all begin to show slowly and painfully. Lincoln, who is five years the elder, repeats how lucky he is to have his job so many times that it becomes clear he is trying to convince himself of it. He keeps resisting the temptation to go back to “throwin’ the cards”, but finally succumbs when he is replaced by a wax dummy at the arcade.
The two were abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 years old but were each given a small inheritance. They also have a photo album that they, or at least Booth, keeps up to date. The brothers also talk about their parents quite a bit. It was not exactly a stable environment to be raised in, and they haven’t been left with a lot of options.
As I have written, this is a very funny play, but when the darkness reveals itself it is deep and painful. It is tragic watching Lincoln and Booth working with their very limited options. They do what most people end up doing when they are up against the wall; they return to what they know how to do. Unfortunately, that is not much of a choice for either of them.
Matthew J. Harris is fast, sharp, and fluid as Booth. He is filled with energy as he moves about the stage and talks about his future with his girlfriend Grace.
Tyronne Mitchell Henderson as Lincoln is subtle yet commanding on stage. His voice and movements convey wisdom and conflict; hope and much pain. Watching him show Booth how to set up a Three Card Monte scam is captivating. The banter and the hand movement makes you want to throw your money down and find where the black card has landed
Harris and Henderson are perfect together. They never miss a beat with their timing and movement. Both are a pleasure to watch.
Director Billy Porter has set the play, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, on a stage that is not time specific. It is a reminder of just how long people have struggled under such circumstances, and of how strong the pain is of trying to make it in life when the bottom rungs of the ladder have been removed. For all of the laughs and good natured back and forth in this work, you will leave the theatre wondering why things have to be this way and what can be done to prevent it from happening. People have many different answers. The trick is in finding the right ones.
by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Billy Porter
Now through April 9thThe Huntington Theatre Company
Avenue of the Arts
264 Huntington Ave., Boston