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Topdog/Underdog Review
Are we truly the products of free will? Or are our lives predestined – by societal expectations, by the tragedies of our adolescence, even by the names given to us by our parents? These questions – and more – swirl through our mind during Kenny Leon’s mesmerizing and exquisitely acted revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Topdog/Underdog,” now at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre.

If anything, this bracing work has even more resonance than it did two decades ago, in large part because some of us have become even more aware of the inequities facing the Black community in light of the BLM movement and the murder of George Floyd. So, we truly understand the mixture of hope and despair with which the unfortunately named brothers Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) and Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) approach life in the dingy one-room flat they’ve been forced to share. (The fine scenic design is by Arnulfo Maldonado, who also frames the stage a la Washington D.C.’s famed Ford Theatre.)

To pay their bills, Lincoln, once the king of three-card monte dealers, has now resigned himself to a different life. He works in an arcade where he dresses up as, yes, Abraham Lincoln – complete with whiteface -- and allows white patrons to come in and “shoot” him on a daily basis. While he claims contentment with this low-paying if steady gig, the extraordinary Hawkins always lets us see Lincoln’s inner disdain, disappointment and disgust – which we know will eventually combust.

Meanwhile, the seemingly sweeter Booth, who refuses any such regular employment, spends part of his days “boosting” (aka stealing) everything from tableware to suits (the spot-on costumes are by the brilliant Dede Ayite) to make up for his lack of conventional income. The rest of his time is spent relentlessly practicing his brother’s former profession, although he doesn’t seem to possess Lincoln’s natural skill, as well as pursuing the unseen Grace, an ex-girlfriend he is desperately trying to win back.

Parks’ use of this particular card game as metaphor, in which the dealer has to be really quick to fool his customers – some of whom lose their life savings on a bet -- is rather brilliant. If nothing else, “Topdog/Underdog” is a show about life’s winners and losers. Moreover, Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen, giving two of the best performances I’ve seen this season (or any season), manage the remarkable feat of making their repetitive practice rounds of three-card monte nothing short of hypnotic.

Equally stunning is how the pair precisely captures the dynamic of their sibling relationship, which has been gorgeously laid out by Parks. Despite towering over Hawkins (which is especially noticeable in the scenes in which he wears boxer shorts and his ultra-long legs are displayed) Abdul-Mateen is (until he’s not) the adoring, “smaller” younger brother, constantly looking up to his older sibling for advice and affirmation.

For his part, Hawkins deftly plays the older brother card, sometimes asserting his power and privilege with cruelty (both thoughtlessly and thought-out) and sometimes going straight into protective mode, trying to ensure that Booth will not follow, literally and figuratively, in his footsteps and instead find the path toward a “better” life. Anyone who is not an only child will find their relationship completely recognizable.

Especially given the pair’s performances, we’d like to think these two men, despite the hands they’ve been dealt, will always have each other. But if we’re smart – and willing to read the clues Parks has given us – we know otherwise. In life (and which has been demonstrated already on Broadway this season), American tragedies came in all colors and sizes.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Corey Hawkins, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Open/Close Dates
Opening 10/20/2022
Closing 1/15/2023

Theatre Info
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036