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Theater Review

An Unqualified Champ in 'Topdog/Underdog'

Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-winning tale of two brothers springs to life.

April 09, 2002|LINDA WINER | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — The place, according to the program, is "Here." The time is "Now." And life for the African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth has always been a tough hustle.

Here and now on Broadway, however, the news is suddenly good. Make that terrific--in a gritty, giddy, about-time sort of way. "Topdog/Underdog," the hot-wired Suzan-Lori Parks duet that opened Sunday at the Ambassador Theatre, feels richer, fresher and tighter than when I saw the two-character comedy-drama late in its celebrated run last summer at the Public Theater. Not only does the evening move with an exhilarating throb of street and family heartbeats, but the play has been opened with good timing too--on Monday it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Presumably, we have director George C. Wolfe to thank for holding out for a big-time transfer of a play that should, for starters, hand the commercial theater those highly elusive young and diverse audiences. Even after Don Cheadle, half of the all-important alchemy with Jeffrey Wright, left to fulfill a movie commitment, Wolfe and company turned up with a wild card that happens to be as impressive, in different ways, and an even more incendiary box-office seduction.

Mos Def, the socially conscious rapper and poet, makes a smashing major-theater debut here as Booth, little brother of Wright's Lincoln. Although Def, the brains behind HBO's upcoming "Def Poetry" series, has had acting roles in an assortment of movies and TV, there was no way to know how spectacular he would be in this virtuosically tricky role. He feels as authentic and inexorably right as Savion Glover did when Wolfe decided Broadway needed the edgy tapper's "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk."

Wright, of course, was introduced to Broadway by Wolfe in "Angels in America" before Hollywood found the actor for "Basquiat" and "Shaft." For all his gifts, however, Wright can sometimes preen onstage when he loses interest in anything but his own character. There is none of that now with the challenges of bouncing off a different offbeat set of gifts. These brothers don't look much alike, but we believe they share a lifetime of family hurt and love, a bond that lets tension out with an incantatory power of playfulness and pain.

Ten years ago, in "The American Play," Parks created a character whose job was to impersonate Abraham Lincoln in an arcade while customers pretended to be John Wilkes Booth. This altogether bizarre and irresistible idea is expanded here in her most accessible--though no less incendiary--work. Wright not only plays a character named Lincoln, but his job is to provide a recreational thrill for would-be assassins--as he says, for "businessmen smelling like two-for-one martinis" and "housewives with they mouth closed tight, shooting more than once."

Link, as Booth calls him, works in horrifying white face, a crumpled stovepipe hat and a fake old black coat, making less money than a white guy but more than the wax dummy that threatens his livelihood. Def brings a marvelous new sweetness to Booth, the needier brother with the short fuse, a loser who has the moves to shoplift--"to boost"--layers and layers of sharp suits (by Emilio Sosa) but who can't master the rhythms his brother had before he gave up hustling three-card monte. But Booth at least has a home--a tiny room designed by Riccardo Hernandez with peeling walls, a single bed, a reclining chair and single bulbs from which Scott Zielinski makes scary shadows. Link, thrown out by his wife, sleeps on the chair.

Parks lets us watch each man practice his grift in solo scenes, fooling customers by fooling themselves. Parks writes with a poetry that pushes the senses while shoving along the inexorable story.

Alongside smart bits of music, from hip-hop to John Lee Hooker and Ornette Coleman, Link surmises that their parents, who abandoned them, succumbed to "something out there they liked more than they liked us." Booth says, with a lovely pride, "I stole and I stole generously." At first, when they talk about their "inheritance," we think it's a joke. But it is as real as the legacy of their tragic metaphor.

How is it that Wolfe also directed the triumphant, old-fashioned show-biz Elaine Stritch showcase this season? Such versatility is amazing. Guess who's top dog on Broadway again.

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