"Yeah? How come?" says Booth.
They sit in a small boardinghouse room somewhere in New York City. They're both black.
"It was his idea of a joke."
The cosmic joke at the bottom of human misery was the point of absurdism, and Topdog/Underdog has a lot in common with the Beckett piece coincidentally showing next door at the Geary, Waiting for Godot. In both plays, two bums waste time on a bleak, un-changing set, running through the same routines over and over, like vaudeville actors. Booth even waits for his no-show girlfriend (while champagne gets warm on the table) for almost seven hours. Booth and Lincoln bicker, banter, and compete. Their lives are kind of absurd. First one has the upper hand, then the other, and their fortunes shift with a grace that helped Parks become the first female African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (last year, after Topdog moved to Broadway).
Still, you don't get the idea that the author of poetic fantasies like Imperceptible Mutabilities of the Third Kingdom and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World has suddenly changed her mind and set out to be a laconic philosopher, like Beckett. Lincoln and Booth don't exist in Godot's gray netherworld, and they never even flirt with discussing God. They're flesh-and-blood New Yorkers in a modern, "post-racial" city, meaning race is never mentioned but still works a heavy, uncertain influence.
Booth shoplifts for a living; Lincoln toils in a penny arcade, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, with chalk on his face, and pretends to die when customers fire toy pistols at him. Lincoln used to earn $1,000 a day playing three-card monte on the street, with a dexterity and speed Booth envies (and wants to learn), but gave up hustling after his partner Lonny was killed. He refuses to teach Booth. He won't "hustle" anymore. At this assertion Booth gives a skeptical grunt. "Dressin' up like some cracker-ass dead-president white man and lettin' people shoot at you," he says, "sounds like a hustle to me."
Parks borrowed the image of a man playing Lincoln in a shooting gallery from her own earlier script, The America Play, and the critic John Simon has ventured that she must be working out some obscure personal obsession in Topdog -- "fraught with symbolic import for her, but unimparted to the audience." Unimparted? President Lincoln's importance here is obvious, palpable, and tremendously sad. He haunts the first half of Topdog because Lincoln, the black man, comes on wearing his top hat and beard for reasons we don't yet understand. Abe's melancholy ghost seems to look on while Booth bullshits Linc about women and Linc talks about throwing three-card. It's protest in the style Chekhov advocated: Just describing a grim situation is always protest enough.
Larry Gilliard Jr. plays Booth as a quick-tongued con man wired on anger, and Harold Perrineau is slightly more subdued as his brother. Gilliard seems to drive the show; his performance is strong and spontaneous, while Perrineau seems less sensitive to shifts in timing and tone. But then Gilliard tends to overdo it sometimes, and Perrineau rises to eloquence in Lincoln's speeches, especially one at the end of Act 1, alternating between laughter and disgust over memories of his days as a top-dog hustler.
George C. Wolfe directed the Broadway production as well as this traveling show, and Carole Shorenstein Hays, who's brought it here in a co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, was also instrumental in moving it to Broadway in the first place. (Topdog started off-Broadway in 2001.) Even the set is the same as the Broadway show; Riccardo Hernández's iron bed frames, naked light bulbs, and water-stained wallpaper make for a flawlessly dismal bed-sit. This is, in other words, a major event -- and yet the house was less than full on the second night. Strange.
Is it a great play? Probably not. I've mentioned Beckett and Chekhov as if they somehow levitate over Parks' shoulder, but the script has flaws; parts of it are clumsy and mechanical. The real news with Topdog is that Parks is capable of such clean, evocative naturalism. Until now, her plays have been complicated fantasies notable for goofy names and tricky puns -- for their anti-naturalism -- but this visit to the real world proves she can write in a gritty hip hop voice that resonates with the past.