Ben Brantley, the chief drama critic of the New York Times (i.e. the most important theater reviewer in the United States) called Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog “as exciting as any new play from a young American since Tony Kushner’s Angels In America.” It was nominated for a Best Play Tony Award and won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I found it one of the two longest evenings I’ve spent in a theater in the past year.
That’s not to say that Topdog/Underdog’s Los Angeles Intimate Theater Premiere at the Lillian isn’t well acted, directed, or designed. It gets thumbs up from this reviewer in all three categories.
Still, if Renee Zellweger had Tom Cruise at hello in Jerry McGuire, Topdog/Underdog lost me pretty much from its opening monolog—African American would-be con artist/“Underdog” Booth practicing his three-card monte routine—a monolog which seemed to go on forever. The arrival of his “Topdog” sibling Lincoln dressed improbably in whiteface and wearing an Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat and Amish beard didn’t help matters.
Perhaps the story of these two burned-by-life brothers could have held my attention in hands other than those of the admittedly award-winning Parks. There’s something innately gripping about the notion of orphaned siblings struggling to make it in the world. But I found Parks’ heightened writing style alienating and artificial. Only rarely did I feel I was hearing an actual conversation between two real people, nor did these characters evoke my sympathy or interest. (Lincoln rehearsing his namesake’s Ford’s Theater death scene is a hilarious exception.) The play lasts close to three hours, and while the same three hours went by lickety-split when I saw Kushner’s Angels, last night they dragged on and on … and on. Most of the Opening NIght audience rose for a standing ovation. My guest and I both felt relief that the long night had finally reached its conclusion.
A.K. Murtadha (Lincoln) and M.D. Walton (Booth) cannot be faulted for their intense, committed performances, nor can director Marty Papazian, who seems to understand Parks’ intentions and carries them out in a way which might well delight Parks, Brantley, and Topdog/Underdog fans. Peter Wooley has created a perfectly dismal (and absolutely perfect) grungy apartment set, beautifully lit by Heather Graff and Richard Peterson. Dianne Graebner’s costumes fit the two hapless brothers to a T. Cricket S. Myers’ outstanding sound design provides a pulsating, gritty urban soundtrack. Props by BMCdesign are fine. Cate Cundiff is stage manager and Vesna Hocevar assistant stage manager.
No Topdog/Underdog or Suzan-Lori Parks fan should be dissuaded by this review from seeing the current production. They’ll probably love it as much as most of the opening night audience seemed to. Ultimately, however, it was not at all this reviewer’s cup of tea.
Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
August 6, 2010