by Hugh Hunter
Under director Marc C. Johnson, The Drama Group cares a lot about their revival of “Topdog/Underdog” (2001) by Suzan-Lori Parks. You see that in the studied squalor of Robert Bauer’s set, a makeshift apartment in an unnamed city. You see it in the energy of its two actors. But is it enough to put across Parks’ laboring script?
Topdog has won many prizes and broad acclaim, but the play is overly long. The Drama Group reproduces the nearly three-hour, two man show about two down-and-out African American brothers. Their father named them Lincoln and Booth as a “joke”. Now grown men, you see that their lives are no joke as they clash and soliloquize.
The two actors are charming. Lincoln (Eric Carter) always has a pint in hand as his mood swings from sullen to ecstatic. Lincoln takes an evident, compensatory joy in black street culture; lanky Carter is wonderfully musical in cadence and movement. When his friend was murdered, Lincoln gave up his Three Card Monte confidence game for a “sit-down job with benefits.”
He now plays a white-face Lincoln in an arcade where he poses for customers to shoot him. Brother Booth (Charvez Grant) only steals from stores and wants big brother to teach him the card game hustle. Grant is the perfect counterpoint to Carter. With his stilted, jerky speech and movement, you see that Booth, unlike Lincoln, has not found a way to cope with this grim world.
You learn about the brothers at a snail’s pace as they take turns in one-upmanship revelations and buried secrets. Their stories offer a sort of Peeping Tom interest, but your interest wanes as even the most important are dramatically inconsequential. At one point, Booth boasts that he had sex with Lincoln’s ex-wife. Consequential? Nope. The brothers plod on.
Exotic Three Card Monte riffs give the show some life. You learn about the sucker game: the Shills (here “Sides”), the Lookout, the Mark. Milk crates and a plyboard top recreate the street set-up. You see how different the brothers are in the way they “throw” the cards and chant “watch me now, watch me now…”
“Topdog” does create an image of entrapped, inner-city life. The brothers’ only choice is between “legitimate” menial work and outlawry. And for both men, their desperate relationships with women are something like getting cash, a way of keeping score. Lincoln can survive in this grim world, but Booth cannot.
But theater is not sociology, and “Topdog” drags. The surprise ending could be poetic and powerful if it did not take so long to get there. Oddly, all night I felt happy for both Carter and Charvez as their vibrant, forward-looking acting chops were at such odds with the dead-end lives they were portraying.
The Drama Group is located at First United Methodist Church of Germantown, 6001 Germantown Ave. “Topdog/Underdog” will run through April 13. Tickets available at the door.