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Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog is a withering portrait of a subversive American dream. The Blackbird Theatre’s production presents this story of two brothers through the lens of their dystopian domesticity, almost disappointed in, yet defensive of, the struggles of the underprivileged, persevering black man.

Lincoln (Brian Marable) and Booth (Ruell Black), their names a bad joke from a long-gone father, appear to have no one but each other. Lincoln, the elder brother, is recliner-surfing on Booth’s good graces after being kicked out by his wife. While he tries to make a stable living (of all things, portraying Abraham Lincoln in whiteface at an arcade shooting gallery), naively ambitious Booth wants to build a three-card Monte empire, but requires the expertise and guidance of former savant Lincoln. Amid discussions of the weekly budget, the women in their lives, and their absent parents and woeful upbringing, Booth and Lincoln enter into a larger, longer con that sheds light on their past and an ominous shadow over their futures.

Director Lynch Travis easily navigates his characters about the dismal space, designer Dave Early’s meager studio-apartment-sans-bathroom that is both appropriately sparse and impeccably detailed. Even when Booth acquires a folding screen partition to bring some pretense of privacy to the room, the sight lines are kept surprisingly well intact, lending unique but engaging views to all three seating areas surrounding the stage. Because the entirety of the play takes place in this apartment, the audience sees only these two characters, alone and together, putting laser focus on how well two people with shared history know each other — and how easily they can turn such knowledge to their advantage. In this respect, Marable’s world-weary Lincoln is especially captivating, brushing off his brother’s persistence and doling out morsels of approval and attention all with calculated disaffection that pays major dividends.

The production’s chief obstacle also seems to be a conscious choice on Travis’s part. The characters’ reality is a world in which criminal activity is the mainstay, in which bilking an especially gullible mark for all his cash is a sign of merit, in which nearly everything that comes into the apartment is “boosted” (including a duo of astoundingly hued formalwear, a visual oddity done big by costume designer Dana Sutton). Lincoln’s weak legitimate career prospects, and Booth’s staid refusal to even consider the same, sets a trap for the characters to sink to the stereotype of hot-tempered black men devoid of forethought. Travis boldly chooses to underplay this aspect, which results in a measured, ponderous first act and whisper-intense rising action in the second. However, the production overshoots mere subversion of stereotypes, instead coming across as pointedly commonplace; what should feel like supposed impromptu decisions masking larger strategic moves feels like so much unremarkable conversation. Although much of the script can be sustained under this model, the ending is exceptionally out of place with the ensuing world of the play, as unfortunately magnified by Black’s difficulty conforming it to his character.

This production of Topdog/Underdog has a distinct point of view coloring its categorically hopeless subject matter, but it’s one that incompletely overlays the script itself. The show is less interested in its story of a dream gone sour, preferring to present a rich and highly contemplative examination of siblings measuring opportunities as they navigate their separate and conjoined lives.


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