Nigel Shawn Williams (L) and Kevin Hanchard as Lincoln and Booth.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Philip Akin (Obsidian/Shaw). At the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Runs to December 4, Tuesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2 pm. $20-$30. 416-538-0988. See listing. Rating: NNNNN
Brotherly love vies with sibling competition in Suzan-Lori Parks's searing Topdog/Underdog, a tense yet sometimes comic piece in which two black brothers, bizarrely named Lincoln and Booth, try to sort out their common past and make a difference in their futures.
Booth, who boosts anything he can get his hands on, is practicing to be a three-card monte hustler; Lincoln is paid to dress as his namesake and be shot over and over by sideshow patrons. Worse, he wears whiteface, which eats away at his sense of worth as a black man. The sibs share Booth's small apartment; Lincoln's wife has thrown him out.
Director Philip Akin's excellent production takes us deep into the taut world of these brothers. Though there's tenderness between them, there's also an ever-present tension that comes from abandonment, a sense of being tossed aside by their parents and the world at large.
Repressed anger's always close to the surface in Nigel Shawn Williams's Lincoln; he takes care of his younger brother, but there's also an element of condescension in his manner. He's a nostalgic dreamer, a man formerly good at cards but now fearful of even touching them.
Williams has one of the play's best speeches, a hypnotic tale of working as Lincoln and watching, upside down in a dented piece of machinery, the patrons who arrive one after another to shoot him. A summation of Lincoln's frustration and powerlessness, the speech dissolves into a kind of primal scream.
Kevin Hanchard's Booth looks to the future, including a life with his girlfriend and success as a hustler. An abusive showoff at times, he easily falls back into the role of little brother, both wanting to learn from Lincoln and wanting to show that he's as good as his older brother.
When the two begin a game of three-card monte - at first Lincoln teaching, Booth drinking in his words and actions - you know that their relationship has turned a fateful corner. The game ramps up their dreams; acrimony and insults start flying. Only one topdog can grab the bone.
Akin knows the script's rhythms, moving it along at rat-a-tat speed but sometimes slowing down to make an emotional point. He understands the play's despair, humour, rivalry and compassion, sometimes evoking them simultaneously with the help of his fine actors.
Parks's writing is sharp and smart in this 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner, not only in the dialogue but also the details. It's not by chance that Booth's obstinate girlfriend and Lincoln's estranged wife are named for different sorts of sweet, desirable objects out of the brothers' reach: Grace and Cookie.
Even Camellia Koo's set and Kevin Lamotte's lighting add to the production's drama. The apartment's milk crates and bits of furniture, including a tiny bed covering a stash of girly magazines, rest on a parquet floor that's solid in some areas, falling apart in others. The instability in the men's lives is mirrored in the instability of the world on which they stand.
Catch Topdog/Underdog soon; it has an all-too-short run at the Theatre Centre.