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'Topdog/Underdog' review — with Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, this play shows its lasting power

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Back on Broadway in a top-notch new production, Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner, Topdog/Underdog, bubbles over with timeless talking points. The always intriguing playwright reckons with race, identity, fractured families, and the elusive chase for grace. At its core – and right there in the title – the play also concerns power. Someone’s always got more of it, and that disparity breeds trouble.

For this harrowing and humorous two-hander to reach its full firepower, it takes actors equal in might. Director Kenny Leon has cast a pair of aces who consistently match each other across the tragicomic tone shifts.

Broadway rookie Yahya Abdul-Mateen II went nude in his Emmy-winning Watchmen role, but he’s never been more emotionally naked than in his performance as Booth. He nails the recklessness — and in the end, raw sorrow — of the brash younger brother. And Corey Hawkins, a Tony nominee for Six Degrees of Separation, gives a star turn that’s persuasively measured and lived-in as big brother Lincoln.

Beyond their ripely symbolic, larger-than-life names, these young Black men share traumatic histories (“raggedy recollections,” as one puts it), uncertain futures, and inevitable fates. The setting, according to the program, is here, and the time is now. Those narrative details manage to be both specific and all over the map.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set also goes more than one way. The depiction of Booth’s residence, a room in an urban boarding house, is down-to-earth in its claustrophobic shabbiness. But beyond its walls are visible swoops of gold drapery, suggesting something less realistic, somewhere shiny and out of reach.

Booth squeaks by from what he can “boost.” He’s convinced con games are the way to economic opportunity and a step up from shoplifting. He needs cash to win over Grace, a woman this dreamer-schemer claims loves him, “but she don’t know it yet.” He clumsily rehearses moves and patter for three-card Monte on an improvised table of milk crates and cardboard. Booth wants to team up in the scam with Lincoln, a former badass at “throwing cards.”

Since quitting the con and getting kicked to the curb by his wife – a crushing blow that involved Booth – Lincoln has made a living by dying. He wears whiteface and a ratty frock beard, frock coat, and top hat to pose as Abraham Lincoln in an arcade, where people pay money to pretend to kill the 16th president. It’s a job out of a strange nightmare – if not the musical Assassins.

It’s pointedly grim stuff. But Parks pulls spiky laughs from the bleak circumstances. Convinced his cost-cutting bosses will replace him (how’s that for an evergreen subject), Lincoln exaggeratedly polishes Honest Abe’s death scene to grin-inducing effect. Similarly, Booth gleefully savors the spoils of a busy day of stealing suits – one for him, one for Lincoln.

But the brotherly love only extends so far. The siblings’ inability to come together on the card con scheme, and a plot twist involving a family inheritance, sets the stage for calamity. When someone has next to nothing, losing that can only lead to extremes.

This production establishes its tone before it begins. A massive Old Glory looms large and conveys a weighty sense of history. Topdog/Underdog does that, too, in its own theatrical way. In this starry and stirring revival, the play unfurls in all its glory.

Topdog/Underdog is at the Golden Theatre until Jan. 15. Get Topdog/Underdog tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Topdog/Underdog. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

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