Topdog/Underdog | St. Louis Actor’s Studio

TopDog06P 75There’s a sense of a classical tragedy playing out before us as we watch them work.

TopDog06P 500

When Lincoln (Reginald Pierre) explains to his brother, Booth (Chauncy Thomas), why their father chose their names, it boiled down to the dad thinking it was funny. Not much of an explanation, but what it led me to wonder is why they’ve reached at least their late 20s or early 30s without ever discussing that oddity before. There are a lot of weird bits of exposition between the two that are about things you’d think they’d already know. Maybe they’re just grappling with their own demons, so they repeat their stories in conversation and awkward soliloquies in an imaginary mirror to try to exorcise them. I don’t know, but Suzan Lori-Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002, and in dramatic impact, she delivers, but not always in coherence.

Of course, it can also be argued that Lincoln and Booth don’t live in a logical world. They are the “invisible men” Ralph Ellison wrote about. Lincoln’s wife has thrown him out, and he’s crashing with his three-years-younger brother in a one-room squat. The paint is peeling in Christie Johnson’s well-imagined and rendered scenic design. There’s no kitchen and the bath is at the end of the hall. Lincoln has to sleep in a chair because the room is so sparsely furnished. The first thing we notice about the set when we enter, however, is three milk crates stacked up in the center of the room with a piece of cardboard on top. This is where we meet Booth who is dealing three-card monte, pretending he’s hustling an imaginary crowd. His hands are awkward and his patter a bit forced, but he’s working on it.

Lincoln enters, and he is, well, Lincoln. He works at an arcade dressed in Lincoln’s trademark frock coat and stovepipe hat with a fake beard and whiteface makeup. His “job” is to be shot. He’s the center of a game in which he sits quietly pretending to watch a play while people pay to select a gun loaded with blanks, come up behind him, and shoot him. He says he can see them approaching in the reflection of a dented fuse box, but he doesn’t always look. He even has a stalker of sorts who plays every day and whispers weird things in his ear. But overall, he likes the job. He can tune out everything around him and just sit and think. He used to be on the streets, the best of the best dealers in three-card monte, but he quit after a member of his crew and a good friend was killed. His brother may be providing the room, but he brings in the paycheck, so he’s the “top dog” in this relationship.

Which leaves Booth as the “under dog.” He is a small time shoplifter and petty thief who squeaks by on stolen goods, but his real aspiration is to be as adept at “the cards” as his brother was. He doesn’t understand why he can’t be, since he never gets busted for stealing, but somehow, his “experience” doesn’t translate. Lincoln and his street gang teased Booth, saying he had two left hands. And when we finally get to see Lincoln deal the cards, we see how right that assessment is. Lincoln is a master at the business of the con, and it’s clear he misses it, but he insists he won’t go back.

Booth has a girlfriend, or maybe he’s made her the living embodiment of his fantasies, named Grace whose sexual prowess Booth describes in graphic detail. He also has a big collection of porno magazines he keeps under the bed. But when we see him struggling with a condom, it’s clear that his experience is limited. One woman he did have, or again, says he did and Lincoln doesn’t disagree, is Lincoln’s wife. He taunts Lincoln with it, but Lincoln remains impassive. The only thing that seems to upset him is the prospect of losing his job because of budget cutbacks and being replaced by a wax dummy. The way these brothers’ luck is going, you pretty much know there probably won’t be a happy outcome. In fact, they’ve been hurtling toward the climax of their story since they were little boys and their mother left them, then two years later, their father did too.

Both left some money with each boy, supposedly $500, and told him not to tell the other, but they have. That act is also kind of a mystery too. Lincoln spent his “inheritance,” but Booth has never touched his. He needs it, so why wouldn’t he? The parents’ problems are ambiguous. Alcohol? They were big drinkers, especially Daddy. Sex? “Moms” had her “Thursday man” and Daddy had his women too, and the worst part about their behavior was how it affected the children. Drugs? Could be, but that kind of addiction is never mentioned. Anyway, Lincoln has taken care of himself and Booth since they were 16 and 13 respectively, except, presumably while he was married. At this point in their lives, booze (their “med-cin”) provides a crutch for both of them.

The way these men live, whether by choice or social forces beyond their control—a little of both, I’d guess—is unclear, but it is very clear the effect poverty and lack of opportunity has on the symbolically tagged brothers. It is Booth’s destiny to destroy Lincoln, but can this pair change history? President Lincoln symbolically “freed the slaves,” but he wouldn’t know that a century and a half later, their descendants would be living out another kind of bondage through lack of opportunity and, in these brothers’ case, their own beliefs that cheating the system is the only way of beating the system.

The period when Booth did provide for himself, however poorly, may be weighing on him now as he has to share the space with his taller, smarter, and more talented big brother again. He can’t help comparing himself and coming up short which eventually erupts in the kind of rage that can’t ever be taken back, no matter how much one wishes he could. Both actors seem to live these roles, not just perform them. There’s a sense of a classical tragedy playing out before us as we watch them work. Thomas has the showier part, and he plays it like a ghetto Olivier. Pierre’s usual quiet strength is his biggest asset here, but his eyes show his own fears and doubts. It’s a study in subtlety. Together, they are all director Elizabeth Helman could have asked for, as she guided them through these great performances.

Topdog/Underdog runs through October 6, 2013 at St. Louis Actor’s Studio. You may visit stlas.org. | Andrea Braun

Photos: John Lamb

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