By Bill Hirschman
One test of a great work of Theater is how new productions each bring out their own discernably different vision from the same raw script.
Topdog/Underdog may not be as infinitely interpretable as Hamlet, but as Palm Beach Dramaworks’ immersifying edition justifies in its delivery, Suzan-Lori Parks’ masterwork has a depth and complexity that gifts each outing with the opportunity to create its own individualistic vibe within the basic framework that her script describes as “deft, dangerous and electric.”
This is underlined in that Dramaworks succeeds with its own specific insights, much as Main Street Player’s solid production did in Miami Lakes just the past fall and another version that dominated Broadway at the end of the last year – and another on Broadway in 2002 and another at Zoetic Stage in 2017.
Indeed, Parks’ Pulitzer-winning play has a dozen themes and messages swirling into each other, much about sibling connections that ricochet between affection and rivalry, trying to survive life in a society crippled by racism and poverty, struggling with past choices, wrestling with character flaws, on and on. Likely, entire essays have been written about the cornucopia.
Just one emerging alongside all of the above in director Belinda “Be” Boyd’s journey here is the role that pride plays fueling all these dynamics including the duel between Black brothers. Pride also underlies that this production resonates with the varied dreams of its protagonists —some lost, some still being lost, but always clear to the audience that there is no possible chance of them coming true.
In a rotting paint-peeling single-room “apartment” in an unnamed urban slum, we meet Booth (Jovon Jacobs), an agile dynamo practicing imperfect skills at the classic street con card game three-car monte. He has absolutely no interest or willingness to get a conventional job, but inarguably, he’s a skilled and successful shoplifter.
Eventually, his brother arrives, Lincoln (George Anthony Richardson), a tall but slow-moving beaten down man dressed in a fifth-rate outfit as his namesake President including a fake beard and white makeup spread across his dark black face. His job, boring and spiritually deadening as the sitting target in an arcade, is the only dependable income in the house.
Booth initially tries to hide what he has been doing with the cards, but then strives to entice the involvement of Lincoln who was once a world-class three-card monte hustler. He dropped out when one of his sidemen was murdered and he has been in almost paralyzed depression ever since.
Both are haunted by a miserable childhood in which both parents deserted them as teenagers. Both also are struggling with relationships: Lincoln’s wife threw out the husk of a man and Booth is having trouble engaging his girlfriend.
The plot and relationships spin, turn in on themselves and explode. Throughout, sadness and dark humor alternate in beat after beat. Characters sing, dance, scream with joy, and labor not to fall apart.
Boyd expertly molded this arc with morphing scenes of intense strife, revealing soliloquies and deliberate introspection – all clearly lurching toward tragedy. But she has no fear of letting the play breathe with long silent tableaus such as Booth happily dancing as he takes off layer after layer of clothes he has boosted for them both. But as Chekhov warned you, you don’t have someone flash a pistol in the first few minutes between two characters named Booth and Lincoln, and expect a bucolic peace at the end.
Both actors invest their characters with secret pains such as Lincoln’s rejection to his brother’s entreaties, “I don’t touch the cards no more.” But when Booth mentions being lucky, Lincoln says with the earned ego of an expert, “Cards aren’t luck, cards is work, cards is skill.”
Start with Jacobs. One of the great pleasures of having seen theater in this region for many years is watching talents emerge, then grow, mature and become fully-formed artists. In 2015, Jacobs played the side role of an anthropomorphic representation of a bird statue adorned in a weird costume in one of Thinking Cap Theatre’s classic “atypical” productions, A Map of Virtue. You had to wonder if we’d ever see this guy again.
Well, slap my mouth shut. Over and over, performances to remember in a clear evolution of talent and technique: The son in M Ensemble’s Fences, a petty criminal in Theatre Lab’s Motherland, Walter Lee in New City Players’ A Raisin in the Sun, Cory again in Dramaworks’ Fences, the factory foreman in GableStage’s Skeleton Crew, and the complex suitor in Dramaworks’ Intimate Apparel last season.
And now, this is simply some of the best acting we’ve ever seen from him, some of the best we’ve seen anywhere from anyone this season.
Physically, verbally, emotionally, Jacobs’ Booth is full of a swagger whose confidence seems as much an assumed pretense than as an actual acquired virtue. His energy drives much of the evening, yet his complex Booth is just as convincing in quieter sections when he shows his sadness, his aching emptiness plus his simultaneous adoration and bitter jealousy of his brother.
Richardson, more about his background in a moment, starts off with a Lincoln who is worn-down, dispirited and carefully withdrawn. The actor and the character are eclipsed for the first third of the play by Jacobs’ manic energy.
And then you realize that Richardson and Boyd have courageously given Lincoln a muted starting point for a solid upward arc of emotion and intensity. The turning point near the end of the first act is when Lincoln slips into his old vocation as the supremely skilled con man with cards; we watch his physical, vocal and emotional being come to life in the precise meaning of the phrase.
Richardson deserves special props because the original actor cast had to drop out about two weeks ago. Hayes and his staff frantically searched for a replacement – a daunting and possibly impossible challenge.
But a theatrical angel was looking out for Dramaworks. Richardson had been an understudy in the acclaimed Broadway revival that ended in January, even having gone on stage a few times. Nine days before opening night, Richardson arrived lines already memorized but having to adjust to Boyd’s singular vision and to create that brotherly bond with Jacobs.
Parks’ script is justifiably lauded, but it meanders dramaturgically and thematically, so it requires a bit of patience from the audience – which patrons realize on the way home has been repaid.
The set designed by Seth Howard rips the fourth wall off a tiny hole in the wall one-room threadbare space with no toilet or running water, just a cot, a reclining chair and milk cartons to be used in numerous ways. Kirk Bookman lights it to create a variety of times of day and night, plus more subtle undercurrents of emotion. Roger Arnold lays in the sounds of an urban world outside including a garbage truck.
Coming back from the pandemic, Dramaworks has gifted the region with one of its finest seasons this year, including 12 Angry Men and August: Osage County. Topdog/Underdog is a worthy season finale.
Topdog/Underdog runs through June 11 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday & Sunday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time is 2 hours 40 minutes including one intermission. Tickets $84. Student tickets for $15, and anyone under 40 pays $40 with a photo ID. Tickets for educators are half price with proper ID (other restrictions apply). Call (561) 514-4042 ext. 2, or online at palmbeachdramaworks.org.