WARWICK, RI —Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” is a searing drama about two brothers, both black men, sharing a ramshackle apartment in a city.
Anthony T. Goss, a newcomer to the Gamm stage, plays Lincoln, employed as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. His younger brother Booth (Marc Pierre) hopes to make a living as a card hustler. The men have very different temperaments. Booth is mercurial, prone to fits of rage and jealousy. Lincoln is more controlled, keeping his emotions under lock and key.
Their parents named them after President Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln’s wife kicked him out, so now he sleeps on the floor of Booth’s apartment.
Lincoln is fearful of losing his job. Booth wants his brother to team up with him to do card hustles but Lincoln refuses.
The brothers pore over a photo album and reflect on their troubled childhood. Deep dark family secrets are revealed. Lincoln laments his meaningless existence. His options are severely limited, which makes his plight even more surreal.
Goss and Pierre deliver outstanding performances. The chemistry between the two actors is electrifying and their characterizations are deeply textured. Pierre, who appeared previously in “An Octoroon,” is chilling as the vengeful Booth. His vocal inflections, his brash physicality, and frequent mood swings are powerfully convincing.
Booth taunts Lincoln for his lack of sexual prowess in very blunt terms. He uses his genitalia as a weapon and as a form of domination. Even when sharing his affection for a woman named Grace (who we never see), Booth regards her more as an outlet for his sexual gratification instead of as a human being with emotions.
Lincoln is a strong-willed man who loves his brother but is trying to break free. He is more ambitious than Booth, more grounded. Their relationship is fueled by insecurity and misplaced rage.
Racism, rampant poverty, and violence still plague the black community. Parks wants to show how these problems can tear families apart. Lincoln and Booth are scarred by their upbringing and the events of the past have a dramatic impact on their future.
Director Cliff Odle ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. The last 15 minutes of “Topdog/Underdog” are unbelievably intense.
The action is staged “in the round” which allows the audience to get to know these troubled men intimately. Michael McGarty’s set design is spare, only a bed and some chairs occupy the stage. Props such as a makeshift book shelf and a lawn chair being held together by duct tape lend authenticity to the story.
There are frequent interludes of flashing lights illuminating the bare stage, courtesy of designer Jeff Adelberg. I’m not sure what purpose they served but they looked great.
“Topdog/Underdog” goes on a bit too long and the ending is unremittingly bleak. There are some humorous moments scattered about, but overall, this is a very depressing story. Sometimes you need to let a little bit of light break through the misery.
Still, the show is worth seeing for Pierre and Goss, both tremendous talents with bright futures ahead of them.
Topdog/Underdog runs through October 1 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, R.I. Tickets: 401-723-4266 or gammtheatre.org/topdog
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