As the name suggests, “Top Dog/Underdog” is a play about competing opposites in which gaining the upper hand is as illusive and enchanting as a game of three-card monte. The harsh realities of life, love and loss are played out in a dingy one-room flat composed entirely of one bed, one chair, a window and two lamps.
The two tenants of the sparse stage are Lincoln and Booth, two brothers vying to stay on top at no matter what the cost. As if the room reflected its occupants, both brothers are emotionally deprived and empty of any notion that there is good in the world. Lincoln, named after honest Abe himself, is trying to take the high road.
Playing the role of Abraham Lincoln at an arcade, he prides himself at having a sit-down job complete with benefits. Booth, named after none other than the 16th president’s assassin, decides that his talents lie in a different path. Boosting what he wants, he spends most of his time practicing the art of three-card monte. In a whirlwind of depressing history and psychological malady, the lives of Lincoln and Booth spiral down into a chasm of anger and a sense of self-pity. Every aspect of their lives leads up to one point. It is this last event that ultimately determines who is the top dog.
” Top Dog/Underdog” is not a play full of sunshine and hope. It is a dark comedy complete with dark subject matter. It’s easy to fall so deeply into this play that you come out not being able to see the light yourself. By simply walking into the theater and looking at the stage in the center, it’s hard not to assume that what is to come won’t be anything but waves of emotion and disgust.
Even if you kept a candle lit to the idea that everything would turn out fine, when the two brothers enter the stage and proceed to begin the story, all hope is blown out with the dimming of the lights and the recurring sound of a gunshot after every scene. The amount of foreshadowing within the story is almost too much. The hard rap music chosen to greet audience members as they’re ushered in and even the names of the characters themselves warn the viewers that a dark cloud of doom is hovering on stage.
The symbolic imagery that swirls around in the head during some of the more intense scenes brings to mind other famous brothers. For those of us who have grown up with Sunday school stories like Jacob and Esau, it’s easier to intertextualize between the two. Both have to do with selling (or in ” Top Dog/Underdog’s” case, betting) away a birthright.
Another story that comes to mind is James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” The idea that to strive to be better than what you are is half the battle to accomplishing it, whether or not that may actually be true, is a theme that is presented within the play through the character of Lincoln.
The two very fine actors who executed the roles of Lincoln and Booth weren’t afraid to delve into the depths of their souls in order to bring the characters to life. In fact, Victor Mack, who played Lincoln, was so convincing that had his mother been in the audience, she would have surely rushed to the stage to aid his poor tortured soul. A veteran of the New York stage scene, he makes his debut performance at the Artists Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in ” Top Dog/Underdog.” While his list of accomplishments on stage is long, his accomplishments as an actor are not limited to theater productions. He has also taken roles on television shows like “Living Single,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “NYPD Blue” and “One Life To Live.”
Bobby Bermea, who played Booth, is also an accomplished actor and no stranger to A.R.T. He previously played the part of Asagai in “A Raisin In the Sun.” While his passion in ” Top Dog/Underdog” was powerful and direct, the stream of profanity that his character projects proved more like a screen between his performance and the audience. While it’s obvious that Bobby was merely saying the lines written in the script, the words that were coming out of his mouth could have been more powerful had they not been a band of constant four letter words. The language used became dead because it was simply overused. The amount of cursing shocked the audience at the beginning but, by the end of the play, it was simply a part of the life that the play was trying to project.
” Top Dog/Underdog” is a Pulitzer Prize winner. There is no doubt that somewhere an intellectual or a fool will watch this production and pull out of the experience a nugget of truth. What this truth is will be different for everyone. While the acting was good and the level of intensity constant throughout, the content and the way in which the script presented it cast too dark a cloud over the total outcome of the experience. The heavy subject matter only increased in weight as the play went on.
You may walk into the theater a little ticked that you had to pay for parking but roughly okay about life, and walk out of the theater questioning the sincerity of “loved ones” and not feeling the need to pursue any type of life-affirming goal. All in all, the play was too forcibly deep and not something that would be considered light entertainment.
Artists Repertory Theatre
1516 S.W. Alder St.
Through Oct. 19
$15 w/student ID