Con Men Break Hearts, Pull Race Card

Starring Johnny Gill & Bowman Wright
Directed by Nadine George-Graves
Arthur Wagner Theatre
Nov. 9 – Nov. 14
3 stars

CaptureIf Mommy and Daddy cursed you and your sibling with cute-as-a-button names like Apple or Moses, all bets are on the table that you are either the unfortunate offspring of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin or the butt end of a sick, sick joke. In the UCSD theater department’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/ Underdog,” brothers Lincoln and Booth can empathize. The abandoned, 30-something-year-old children of philandering parents, Lincoln and Booth are black men in white America. One works as a Lincoln impersonator (white face/top hat) at an arcade, while the other aspires to be a street hustler. As they struggle with racism, poverty and the fairer sex, the motif of a three-card monte reveals the brothers’ illusions of personal identity.

“Lean in close and watch me close, watch me close now,” Booth repeats while practicing his card trick. With this invitation, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks coaxes us to challenge the play’s face value. “Topdog” pities a fractured African-American family living in a dilapidated inner-city apartment with dreams deferred (insert ninth-grade “A Raisin in the Sun” essay here). But the race card nearly disappears as Lincoln and Booth pick up the game of cards, and their sibling rivalry rises to the forefront. So much that — though a pre-show “Enjoy the mothafuckin’ show, mothafuckers” promises comedic relief — embroiled argumentation over mesmerizing rounds of three-card monte has wrung the audience’s capacity for attentiveness dead dry by the three-hour mark.

After a near-death shooting, Lincoln leaves the trade to impersonate Honest Abe for a living: He lets tourists aim phony pistols at his head while he “makes up songs, makes plans.” Booth, meanwhile, takes hustling up as a getrich- quick scheme for impressing his lover, Grace. Her symbolic absence throughout the play foreshadows the absolution that Lincoln and Booth will ultimately face.

When Booth finally gives in, we root for him. After all, con man is surely a step up from department-store thief. But when Lincoln loses his job to a wax dummy, he finds himself drawn back into the thug life. Booth instantly adopts a competitive hostility toward his elder brother, vying to topple Lincoln from his “topdog” pedestal.

A single bed, sofa and makeshift crate ‘n’ cardboard dining table cramp the already close quarters of the Arthur Wagner Theatre, and the suffocation created by this compact set mirrors the ballooning egos of the brothers. Bouquets of bare light bulbs hang upside down from the ceiling to aggrandize the brothers’ financial woes, and their soft glow — under the set design of Sarah Cogan — opens space for familial love despite the bickering.

In a play that leans heavily on the acting chops of its two-man cast, both Johnny Gill and Bowman Wright depict characters so divergent in personality that when Lincoln questions, “Is we really blood brothers?” it seems plausible. As Booth, Gill oscillates gracefully from the pelvic-thrusting highs of “sexual release” down to the tear-jerking lows of the demoralizing final scene. Wright’s Lincoln is an equally nuanced performance, rife with monotone rhyme-bustin’ and repressed anger, which provides a direct foil for Booth’s unrestraint.

As Lincoln and Booth bash and thrash each other, they initiate a cycle in which, ultimately, the winner is unclear. Under the direction of Nadine George-Graves, however, this production certainly emerges a dog on top. So watch it. And watch it close now.