Top Dog/Underdog

Slightly derivative, but brings moments of real poetry in the final act

Suzan-Lori Parks took the sibling rivalry of Sam Shepard's True West and David Mamet's obsession with street-level hustle, added a dash of racial intrigue, and concocted a slightly derivative brew that was compelling enough to earn her the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play opens in a ramshackle studio apartment shared by the brothers Booth and Lincoln; the names were their father's idea of a joke, and such blatant foreshadowing is a good example of the type of obvious poetic device that Parks seems most comfortable dealing. The brothers rehearse Lincoln's inevitable execution and ruminate on the nature of relationships, the fallout of divorce, and the ethics of three-card monte. We've seen this brand of dysfunctional male ennui dealt with in a sure-handed, subtle manner before, so the scenario can feel like a stale retread. Despite the familiarity of the situation, though, the final act of Top Dog brings moments of real poetry, dazzling card-shark skills, and an almost tangible awareness that the stakes are high for the common man. The solid actors David Westley Skillman and Ian Walker capture both the desperate grace and the moments of fleeting transcendence given only to the unlucky. — Frank Wortham

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