It’s strangely fitting that the two brothers who occupy the stage in “Topdog/Underdog” are obsessed with three-card monte, because the production of the play shares some of the game’s characteristics: there are a lot of complicated tricks, illusions and flourishes, but in the end, you just feel gypped.
The play stars Jesse Kirkland ’12 as Lincoln and William Smith ’12 as Booth, two black brothers who are living together in Booth’s one-room apartment after Lincoln’s wife gives him the boot. Lincoln, a defunct street hustler, has a job at a local arcade dressing up as Abraham Lincoln (whiteface and all) so that tourists can pretend to shoot him. Booth has grand ambitions to set up his own three-card monte table like his brother once did. As the play progresses, the two attract and repel each other, coming together to support one another when it counts and pushing away when their flaws and insecurities about their identities and their pasts approach too close for comfort.
Unfortunately, the play feels too much like a series of attractions and repulsions, a continuous wave that rises and falls with disheartening predictability. Director Quincy O’Neal’s ’10 vision of the show doesn’t play to its strengths. As a result, there’s a lot flying around Booth’s cramped apartment on the personal and social levels — issues of racial pride, the tragedy of the poverty cycle, the disillusionment of adulthood — that isn’t explored as thoroughly as it should be. The benefit of a play in which two characters hash out their lives in a single room for its entirety is that there exists the capacity for crackling interpersonal tension and devastating eruptions of emotional intensity. O’Neal’s production never taps into that potential, and the play suffers. It fails to achieve the poignancy necessary to make its thematic subtext more than thematic subtext. Instead, it feels dryly academic and tediously cerebral.
Kirkland and Smith definitely have chemistry, if not quite enough to make them believable brothers. They have all their cues down, and the intensity of their advances and retreats from one another often approach the kind of tension that would vivify the play to the point of resonance, but they ultimately fall short. The highs aren’t high enough; the lows aren’t low enough. There’s a lot of meandering: the brothers talk, then they yell, then they talk again, but they never seem to go anywhere. Achieving that kind of inescapable futility may be the goal of the play, but that futility never receives the emotional grounding it would need to become real. Instead, it remains an idea that floats impotently around the stage.
The production, like Booth, is ambitious, if not exactly in the right way. Despite all of the fancy maneuvers and back-and-forths, when all was said and done, I couldn’t but feel as though both actors and audience had been bested by the overpowering intricacy of “Topdog.”