Street theater

Topdog/Underdog, on stage at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — a first for a play by an African-American woman.

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ writing style and subject matter might make you uncomfortable, but her voice is important. This play is more traditionally structured than most of her work and is, in many ways, her most resonant one yet.

Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, this is hardly a flawless dramatic work — its languid structure may be the knottiest problem — but the vitality and gritty lyricism of Parks’ writing are unlike anything heard recently on the local stage.

She might currently be more skilled as poet than playwright. Her dialogue has a sharp vernacular verve that’s entertaining in itself. She has created distinct voices for this two-character play that are fresh and funny. Just watching Billoah Greene and Seth Gilliam dig into the torrents of words is a heady experience.

Yet, neither performer exudes the kind of electric charisma that can pin you to your seat. So, like a TV sitcom, it doesn’t take the audience long before they notice there’s not a lot going on in this disappointing play.

Topdog/Underdog tells the story of Lincoln (Gilliam) and Booth (Greene), two brothers named by their father as a joke. Lincoln, a former three-card monte dealer turned legit, works at an arcade in which he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln and acts out fake assassination attempts.

Booth is an unemployed wannabe three-card monte dealer, but he acknowledges that his brother is by far his superior. Booth is involved with a woman he claims he will marry, and tells Lincoln that he will soon have to move out.

As the play progresses, we learn about Lincoln and Booth’s parents, both of whom abandoned them when they were teenagers, leaving each of them $500. Lincoln has problems at work, and begins to entertain thoughts of returning to three-card monte. In one particularly potent scene, Lincoln shows us just how good he is at the game, further emphasizing Booth’s frustration at not being able to reach his brother’s level.

Inheritance is a very strong theme in Topdog/Underdog. The pittance of a monetary sum left to these two men is meant to underline the legacy left to African Americans in this country. The brothers fight for their little piece of the world.

Unfortunately, not much real drama emerges from beneath the words and the lively by-play between the two actors. Booth is stood up on a date with Grace for which he’s lavishly prepared. Lincoln gets fired and falls back on his three-card monte skills — but tries to hide it from Booth, resulting in a final, violent confrontation.

But we get little sense that the events of both past and present have a powerful emotional hold on the characters. The dialogue is too diffuse, and it doesn’t reveal any depths of feeling.

As a result, the violent climax seems a contrivance — an ironical nod to historical inevitability, not a tragedy arising from a man’s losing battle against his demons and his circumstances. Topdog/Underdog is stylish and intriguing on the surface, but when it’s over you might feel like one of the "marks" in a corner card game: out of luck.

A poet of impressive talent, Parks puts words into the mouths of her characters that are veritable explosions of wit and imagery. The key to making the play work is avoiding the temptation to be gritty. This is not an expos� of the desperate lives of the urban poor, but a social satire, which, at the end, drops its playful mask and shows the costs of the self-hatred, loss and confusion it portrays.

The fact is, Lincoln’s patently unbelievable line of work strains belief in the realistic context of this play. Repeated references to Lincoln’s daily trials at work and fear of being replaced by a wax dummy lend the play a nagging sense of unreality that clashes with an obvious attempt to capture the world as it is.

Thus, rather than forwarding an understanding of racism in terms of systemic oppression, the play makes light of such a notion and represents society as a dog-eat-dog world of endless hustles.

The logic of Topdog/Underdog, or the hustle (in which one is either the player or the played), represents social relations as a struggle to dominate.

Philadelphia Theatre Company
Plays and Players Theater
1714 Delancey St.
Through Nov. 16
Tickets: $30-$45