Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review: (Toronto) Topdog/Underdog

Beyond the merely enjoyable
The beautiful and real Topdog/Underdog
by Jessica Wei

In psychology, Topdog vs. Underdog generally refers to a mind game that people play with themselves as a way of dealing with anxiety. Topdog describes the responsible side of the individual, the voice that drops words like, “should” and “ought” to keep the subject aligned with the norms of society. The  Underdog is the self-protective devil on the left shoulder, making excuses and sabotaging the demands of its opponent. 

...he now holds a job in an arcade, literally dressed as Abe Lincoln while tourists  pay to shoot him with blanks.

It should be said that the Underdog is generally the one who wins in this game. And this is also how the Pulitzer-winning show “Topdog/Underdog” plays out. But, as we've been told many times by parents, coaches, teachers, and peers – winning isn't everything. 

Booth and Lincoln are brothers who, after what must be a series of unfortunate incidents, share a tiny, rundown apartment in New York. Lincoln is the older of the two. Having separated from his wife and turned his back on hustling for money on the street, he now holds a job in an arcade, literally dressed as Abe Lincoln while tourists  pay to shoot him with blanks. He is the Topdog, with the honest, albeit depressing, day job. His younger brother, the reckless young devil on the other side, collects pornographic magazines under his bed, hoards money, steals everything he owns, and aspires to be the best Three-card Monte dealer since, well, his big bro. Classic Underdog. Together in their ratty apartment, Booth and Lincoln descend into violent arguments and the pits of alcoholism. They unload the burden of their communal regrets on the broken parquet flooring, and attempt to piece together their shattered childhood with no optimistic results. 

It's violent, uncomfortable, filled with horrific situations and stomach-churning suspense...

This play is mind-bending. It takes you deeper and deeper down into a psychological plane that you, as a viewer, would never want to access on your own. It's violent, uncomfortable, filled with horrific situations and stomach-churning suspense until the very end, where the one thing everyone anticipates but fears will happen, happens. And there's a long scream, then a silence. And it's terrifying. This is some real “Long Day's Journey Into Night” shit. But it's impeccable. 

Both actors – Kevin Hanchard, as Booth, and Nigel Shawn Williams, as Lincoln – are capable of incredible range. The highs are charming and light, and the lows are devastating. Hanchard, in particular, brings a levity to his character in the beginning that makes everybody root for him, even when he steals, lies, and cheats his way to get what he wants. When he gets dark, though, he sends tidal waves of shivers. 

After watching this play, I left the theatre with two things floating to the surface of my mind: a) “I regret every other play that I've reviewed and called “good”; and b) “I don't think I can write another play in my life because there's no possible way to beat what I just saw.” And it's true. The dialogue is soooo good. It's authentic and lyrical, probing and playful. The playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, nails the dialect of the lower-class black man in New York City, and balances out the darkness with infectious charm. 

Topdog/Underdog is not an enjoyable play; it'll gut you from the inside out with rage and desperation, but it's beautiful, mesmerizing, and real. And that is more than enough to make a great play. 

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