Underdog’ deals a winning hand

Eric Hoyt

It would be overly simplistic to call “Topdog/Underdog” a play about two African-American brothers. It is much more: an examination of the interdependency of power structures; a creative exploration of the lyrical rhythms of language; and a fascinating mixture of theatrical styles.

And yet, “Topdog/Underdog,” which runs through Nov. 2 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, is also a play about two brothers, and an absorbing one at that. The production’s ability to balance these many aspects and remain engaging on an immediate level makes for a theatrical experience that is not to be missed.

The two brothers are Lincoln (David Rainey) and Booth (K. Todd Freeman), who live together in a one-bedroom apartment that is far too small for the both of them. Early in the play, Lincoln, the older brother, enters the apartment dressed in white face, a fake beard and a dark suit. He works, we learn, at an arcade where he plays Abraham Lincoln. For a little money, people can step up behind him and shoot him in the back of the head with a gun filled with blanks.

It’s clear that the relationship between the brothers’ names and Lincoln’s job is no coincidence, but the exact meaning of this relationship remains shifting and hard to pin down. Is Lincoln’s job meant to be taken as humiliating? Or do arcade assassins get satisfaction from striking out against a symbol of power and authority? And if Lincoln is the older brother and topdog, does Booth, who is dependent on Lincoln’s financial support, secretly want to strike back and enact the famous assassination?

The Lincoln/Booth dichotomy — both in terms of the brothers and Lincoln’s job — is the first of many binaries that “Topdog/Underdog,” the title of which is a binary itself, goes on to explore. In order to have one, there must be the other. Winners and losers, blacks and whites, the players and the played: “Topdog/Underdog” shows the interdependency of these binaries on one another and the mutually oppressive systems that they foster.

Lincoln didn’t always make his living as Honest Abe, though. Before an unfortunate accident years ago, he was a lucrative grifter who made big money “throwing cards” — a game in which three cards are quickly moved on a table and the gambler has to keep his eye on the right card. As “Underdog” continues, Booth urges Lincoln to teach him the secret to throwing cards. The interplay between the brothers is rich in its energy, delicate power shifts and speech patterns.

In these exchanges, playwright Susan-Lori Parks proves herself to be a master of language and dialogue. But what makes Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning script extraordinary is not so much the dialogue’s realism, but its lyricism. In Parks’ hands the brothers’ vernacular becomes a type of poetry, complete with intricate rhythms, musical rhymes and creative wordplay. Her writing accentuates and emphasizes patterns that might be found in everyday life, but also adds a new beauty that is entirely its own.

One of the great strengths of the Steppenwolf’s production is its ability to service and interpret Parks’ poetic language. It is a pleasure to witness the energetic interaction between the two performers, under the competent direction of Amy Morton.

Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman is effective as Booth, the louder and more manic of the brothers. He skillfully captures the vulnerability that lies beneath Booth’s boastfulness, and also conveys the anger, resentment and disappointment that represses itself until the play’s end.

But it’s David Rainey who emerges as the true top dog in his performance. As the complicated Lincoln, Rainey is restrained, intelligent and seductive. Though Freeman’s Booth appears to be more forceful, Rainey in fact controls every scene, particularly in the second act when Lincoln begins to throw cards again.