Topdog/Underdog

The final production of the 2019 season at Princeton Summer Theater is Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning Top Dog/Underdog, directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet. The show premiered August 8 and runs through August 18 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater.

Sibling rivalry that boils over into violence is as old as Cain and Abel, with the line between love and hate ever-shifting. African American brothers Booth (Travis Raeburn) and Lincoln (Nathaniel J. Ryan), five years older, have an uneasy relationship made more acute by their dwindling life prospects. Despite Booth’s determination to change his name to Three-Card, the brothers seem constrained by the names their father chose for them as a cruel joke.

Booth has a one-room apartment and a girlfriend whom we never see (and who may be apocryphal); Lincoln has come to live with him after his wife threw him out, and Booth would like to get rid of him too, but Lincoln has a job and income, even if paltry. In a tangle of symbolism, he works in a carnival, in whiteface and dressed up as Abraham Lincoln. People pay to come into his booth and shoot him with a gun filled with blanks. They carnival hired him because they can pay him less, but even that meager income is threatened, because management plans to replace him with a wax dummy.

In the old days, Lincoln made a good living fleecing tourists with the Three-card Monte con, but initially refuses to take up the cards again. Booth would like to develop a Three-card Monte racket of his own. In the opening scene, he’s practicing his card-handling skills and patter at the front of the stage, when his brother enters, in full Lincoln regalia. Startled by Lincoln’s entrance, Booth pulls his gun, then lies about what he was doing. Playing solitaire, he says.

Throughout the course of the play, much comes out about the brothers’ reaction to being abandoned by their parents when they were 16 and 11 and their uneasy relationship in the ensuing twenty years or so. Which of them is the top dog and which the underdog shifts back and forth many times.

Raeburn gives an energetic performance as Booth, ever the kid brother, teasing and bouncing to keep Lincoln’s attention. Much of the comedy in the production comes from his portrayal. Ryan starts out as the ghostly Lincoln, morose and beaten down not just by his bizarre job but the even more awful prospect that he may lose it. He resists Booth’s importuning to go back to his Three-card Monte days, and finally, alone in the apartment, really comes to life when he takes up the cards again.

Rakesh Potluri produced the set (the vividly floral wallcoverings were inspired by the work of artist Kehinde Wiley, who created the portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery). Music from the hip-hop duo Outkast’s 1998 album Aquemini, which like the play is thematically influenced by differences between the two principals.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is also walking distance from numerous restaurants.

For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

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