Brothers Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) and Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) live together in a rooming house. When they were in their teens, they were abandoned by their parents, who seemed to agree on little except the inheritance they left: five hundred dollars to each son. Lincoln, a former hustler, now impersonates his namesake for a living. At work, he wears a top hat and whiteface, and his customers pay to shoot him. Booth is training for his brother’s trade, and Topdog/Underdog begins with his practicing Three-card Monte: “Watch me close watch me close now,” he says as the lights go up.
Money isn’t all Lincoln and Booth inherit. Their names, apparently given as a joke, seem to have determined a lifetime of struggle; they could have been called Cain and Abel. Though we never see Lincoln at work, offstage, he is inheriting, or rather absorbing, generations of rage at Black emancipation. In addition to being murdered every night, his boss pays him less than his predecessor, who was white. They might replace him with a wax dummy.
Booth, meanwhile, has the nervous and pleading energy of one who was deprived love and compensates with feigned confidence. He seems to have slept with Lincoln’s ex-wife, and he keeps talking about reuniting with an ex-girlfriend, Grace. One night, she’s coming over but “running late.” “She was supposed to be here at 8,” he tells his brother. “Its after 2 a.m.,” Lincoln replies, “Shes—shes late.”
Kenny Leon’s revival of Topdog/Underdog, the first on Broadway since its debut, is polished, marked by strong acting and good production values. Still, there is a lukewarm quality here, a lack of vision or surprise. I failed to see what Leon was bringing to the Parks’ material, unlike, say, his superb production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2019. It’s slick, but a little cold-blooded.
Topdog/Underdog runs through January 15th at the Golden Theatre. 252 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 20 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Marc J. Franklin.