Lincoln and Booth, the battling brothers of "Topdog/Underdog," were so named by their father in a cruel joke: he thought it funny to name his sons after America's most honored president and his assassin. Little did he know that Lincoln would turn up impersonating the president in an arcade sideshow in which customers would act out the assassination and shoot him with cap gun. Lincoln, played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (who bears a more than passing resemblance to our last president) enters with his raggedy beard, top hat, morning coat and -- alarmingly -- in white face. In his early 40s, he's a beaten man, living on the chaise lounge in his brother's rundown apartment. Not that Booth (Matthew J. Harris) is doing much better -- a man-child in his 30s, his only skill is shoplifting.
Still Booth dreams of following in his brother's footsteps. For years Lincoln was a consummate three-card-monte artist, making a $1,000 a day at the game played on street corners while evading the watchful eye of the police. But after his partner in the grift is murdered, Lincoln loses his taste for the game, as well as his wife, home and dignity in the process. Now Booth wants his brother to teach him the skills so he can take to the street and clean-up; but Lincoln won't have anything to with it.
Such is the dynamic of Suzi-Lori Park's Pulitzer Prize winning play, which first appeared at New York Public Theater in 2002 before a Broadway run. In the tenuous war-of-nerves that the play's title suggests, the brothers are often squaring off to see who is on top, only to retreat when the bond between them creeps back into their lives. It makes for a tense, often funny and poignant evening of theater made electric by the chemistry between Henderson and Harris. The two navigate the place where resentment and love co-exist with consummate skill.
In Billy Porter's staging the brothers move from bed or chair to the central image -- a makeshift table of milk crated and cardboard on which the card game is played -- with a choreographic grace. Porter deftly gives each brother a moment to shine that underscores the play's power play. In the first act Harris (who is also a hip-hop artist) performs a a show-stopping street dance; in the second Henderson shows just how a grifting card shark shines in his art.
At times the interplay between the brothers brings to mind another play about two-other-warring brothers -- Sam Shepard's "True West," but what makes "Topdog/Underdog" so memorable is Park's original and distinctive voice. Her sharply-etched characterizations, her comic skills, her scalding dialogue, and ability to frame this drama in a larger historical/social context are brilliantly realized at the Huntington.
Clint Ramos's expressionistic set -- Booth's dreary room set at a diagonal and lined by pointed shafts of wood -- is rather alarming: those spikes looked as if they could be dangerous to the actors on stage if one should make the wrong move. They also reinforced the divide between the African-American characters and the largely white, tended audience that must look through them to watch these siblings spar. They make the fourth wall literal.
Whether this distancing effect is intentional or not, it does create an unexpected, thought-provoking and pertinent context to Park's searing two-hander on the long-term effects of poverty in the lives of African-American men.
"Topdog/Underdog" continues through April 9 at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the Huntington Theatre website.