In The Mercy Seat at NOCCA, Ashley Nolan and Ryan Rilette (under Karl Lengel's direction) gave us a fierce, disturbing look at post-9/11 love of the upscale, white, urban variety. In Topdog/Underdog, which just closed at the Contemporary Arts Center, we again found ourselves in a vortex of postmodern emotional chaos. This play, however, takes place at the lowest rung of the social ladder: a tiny, one-room ghetto apartment. The situation was starker. The stakes were higher. But the pervading sense of loss and lack of direction were strikingly similar. Once again, a director (John Grimsley) and his two actors (Lance Nichols and Don Guillory) held us spellbound.
The play, which earned Suzan-Lori Parks the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama, follows a pair of African-American brothers. The elder (Nichols) is named Lincoln and the younger (Guillory) is named Booth. This minor weirdness was a joke played on the boys by their father, a high-living, heavy-drinking philanderer. The initial weirdness soon amplifies into a greater weirdness, for Linc is now employed as a Lincoln effigy in an amusement arcade. People pay for the opportunity to assassinate him (that is, to play the part of Booth, his younger brother's namesake). This is a classic example of those unsettling tragicomic twists that so often lie at the center of contemporary sensibilities. In any case, Linc -- in full or partial iconic regalia -- is an indelible stage picture.
We pick up the back story, little by little. These guys grew up in a rough, messy world; for instance, their father used to take Linc with him on visits to his side women and let the boy watch him have sex. Sometimes Linc would even climb into bed when the old man was asleep and have sex as well. The numbing squalor of this and similar facts is related in a trenchant, often witty, vernacular. Needles to say, simple human feelings grope blindly in the chaos of such an upbringing, like blind men navigating some new circle of Dante's hell. Although the story is specifically rooted in the African-American experience, these brothers have more in common with the brothers in True West by Sam Shepard than with the siblings in Raisin in the Sun by Loraine Hansbury. Disintegration trumps race.
One of the ways Linc and Booth try to put order in their lives is by precisely budgeting the $314 Linc earns each week at the arcade. Booth's only contribution is the apartment that he has somehow managed to hold onto. He does nothing by way of gainful employment, except shoplift. His great dream in life is to become a dealer of three-card monte. And no wonder; Linc used to earn $1,000 a day as a monte dealer. But monte isn't really a game. It's an elaborate street con in which a mark is gradually convinced he can win -- partly by watching a stooge win and partly by being allowed to win, until he puts big money on the table.
Linc is disgusted with hustling. He'd rather work at his "sit-down" job, where he can be calm and think. When his brother tries to paint the Honest Abe gig as a hustle as well, Linc will have none of it. "People know the real deal," he says. "If people know the real deal, it ain't no hustle!" This distinction is Linc's one ray of hope, a last chance for decency that he clings to. For Booth, on the other hand, monte dangles the lure of money and prestige. It's paradise he can't enter without his brother's help.
Part of the humor of the play arises from the Beckett-like precision the brothers bring to bear on their diminished existence. When Linc objects to spending money on a phone, Booth points out that giving a woman your telephone number establishes a) you have a place to live, b) you're solvent, and c) "there's no wife or wife-approximation on the premises," since it's all right for a woman to call you at home.
Topdog/Underdog is not a short play. Furthermore, it's intentionally claustrophobic. But director Grimsley made the brave decision not to spice things up or hurry them along. He trusted Guillory and Nichols to make the weirdness real. And his trust could not have been better placed.