“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” –Anton Chekhov
There is no equivalent principle of “Chekhov’s deck of cards,” but Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize winner, revived on Broadway with all of its power intact twenty years later, uses the same technique: Deal a game of cards in the first act; make something consequential come of winning or losing it in the second. The play is exquisitely simple: Two characters, Black brothers Lincoln and Booth (named by their father as a joke). One room, where they both live. One central conflict, laid right out in the title–which is the top dog, which the underdog? (This is not a world in which there’s any possibility that they might both come out ahead.) In a dark piece of irony, even the plot is laid out right there in the character names–we all know what connects (Abraham) Lincoln and (John Wilkes) Booth, and what ends they both came to. And the two key elements to the action are displayed in the play’s first moments: a game of three-card monte, and a gun. It’s a play with nothing to hide, a play whose end is contained perfectly in its beginning, whose sense of a fated tragic destiny is as keen as the Greeks’–and yet we spend it wishing for some other ending than the tragedy we’ve always already seen coming.
Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) is the older brother, a former three-card monte dealer of some expertise, now trying to live a straight life with not a huge amount of success. His wife threw him out. He’s sleeping in a recliner chair in his younger brother’s rooming house, a place so rundown that it doesn’t even have running water. He’s working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, whiteface and all, in a shooting arcade where the populace gets a chance to assassinate a president for fun. Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the younger brother, is a man of more concrete but equally unachieved dreams: He wants to get back together with his ex, Grace. He wants to pick up where Lincoln left off, running a monte crew. (That opening card game is Booth practicing, badly.) He wants to find just the right thing to do with his “inheritance,” the only thing he has left from parents who abandoned the brothers as teenagers. But the only thing he’s really good at is “boosting,” building a life out of stolen goods. (Some of the play’s most joyful moments involve Booth revealing his purloined goods, particularly a pair of suits for himself and Lincoln; this is when Abdul-Mateen gets to show the confidence Booth never has at the card table, and costume designer Dede Ayite gets to have some fun with building hiding places into Booth’s wardrobe.)
After a childhood in which they had nothing but each other, raised by parents who tried to divide their loyalties, the adult Booth and Lincoln oscillate between a fierce, defensive love and an equally fierce, bitter resentment. Booth is both the man who slept with his brother’s wife and the man who let that brother move in with him; Lincoln is both the man who pays the rent on his brother’s tiny room and the man who feels contempt for that brother for never having a job. They betray and cheat each other because of how much they hate each other; they destroy each other because of how much they love each other. Kenny Leon’s direction is restrained and precise, and the exquisite control of both performances means that you can watch those shifts moment by moment, even word by word. Abdul-Mateen and Hawkins make both brothers men who want to take up space, men of physical power, and you feel the containment of keeping them crammed into a small room. (Arnulfo Maldonado’s realistic, rundown room is a box in the center of the stage, amplifying the confinement, framed by swagged satin draperies as perhaps a little reminder of the glamorous world they do not inhabit.)
As the brothers struggle for the upper hand, though, Parks never lets you forget how ultimately terrible all their choices are. “The only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you.” “The man” is both the dealer of one particular game of chance, and the world at large. Booth’s every attempt to get ahead–trying literally to win at his brother’s game; trying to get back with his ex—meets the same fate. (And yes, there’s a deep irony in his eternally waiting for, and constantly being eluded by, Grace. Like Godot, Grace will never come, and nor will grace. Unlike Vladimir and Estragon, Lincoln and Booth try to act to change their fate, and bring only more tragedy. Also Godot-like: the sense that many of these conversations have happened before; surely this isn’t the first time the brothers have gone back over their memories trying to make sense of their childhoods.)
Lincoln is trying to step away from the rigged game entirely, working a “sit-down job” and keeping his head down–but he’s playing his shadow self, getting paid less than the white guy who had the job before him to get mock-assassinated over and over. The names Booth and Lincoln may have started out as a joke, but perhaps they’ve become destiny. Both of them make the mistake of thinking they can change the game. It’s no accident that the climactic act of violence mirrors the mock violence that Lincoln experiences every day at his job–Lincoln and Booth, paired by history and here paired by blood.
I’ve recently been reading a forthcoming biography of Sam Shepard, which means I can’t help putting Topdog/Underdog in conversation with True West. Shepard’s Lee and Austin, a thief and a screenwriter, are violently working out their mutual disappointment with the lives they’ve made for themselves; each envies the other, but from the presumption that their lives in America could still go differently. It’s hard to see how Booth and Lincoln could ever have made it out alive. “The only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you.” Whether as president and assassin or as two Black men in America, their end was already written.