Hanging with the Cain Boys
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, Directed by George C. Wolfe, Seattle Rep Theatre.
The Rep is on short rations these days, down from 9 plays cycling through two theatres simultaneously to a rump schedule of 6. It leads off with Topdog/Underdog, Pulitzer prize winner for 2002.
Topdog/Underdog is about two brothers who are brothers, living at the lowest possible level, held together by family ties and 3-card monte. Its Cain and Abel, but in this case both are Cain. Lincoln, the elder brother played by Harold Perrineau, is Brother Order and has a sit-down job with benefits” – he plays President Lincoln at a local Arcade, where people pay money to shoot him. Booth five years his junior, played whippet-nervous by Larry Gilliard, Jr. Booth is a petty crook and a big talker, and takes his older brother into his absolute bottom-level apartment when Lincoln’s wife throws him out. Call Booth Brother Chaos.
Yeah, Booth and Lincoln. Only two people in the show. We see a handgun in the first act. You wonder how THAT’s going to turn out.
Three-card-monte is the patter and the mantra – Lincoln gave up the game, Booth wants to master it. The character progression is interesting, and the actors are just fantastic, wrestling this oddly-shaped relationship play to the ground and pounding it into recognizable shape. Order succumbs to Chaos and Chaos punishes him for it.
What bothered me about the play most was the non-setting – “Here” and “Now”. Actually it takes place in Theatre-Land, that mystical universe where allegories run free and time and space can be mutated to make a point. It works if by “Here” we mean Times Square after the Second World War. And by “Now” we mean a shifting timeframe where the technology hasn’t advanced since the 70s. Booth boosts clothes with old-fashioned scams that don’t work anymore, and goes on a talk about how giving a woman your phone number means you have a home and a phone and no woman (It means you have a cell phone, these days). Lincoln’s job is Paleolithic as well – with Times Square’s arcades being Guillianized, is there no place a man can go if he wants to shoot Lincoln? All theatre is imaginary universes, but this one is more imaginary than most, and that was the highest hurdle I had to climb over.
So that leaves me with a comment that I’ve made before on other subjects – “Pulitzer? This is a Pullitzer?” I’ve had that reaction before – Pulitzer is the Good Housekeeping Seal on verbage, and I expect a lot more than I get sometimes. I guess I’m going to have to dig up how they award these things, because this is not the first time I’ve stumbled onto this realization.