2 Brothers, 3 Cards, 1 TOPDOG Opener

Brothers Brandon J. Dirden and Jason Dirden are brothers Lincoln and Booth in TOPDOG/ UNDERDOG the Pulitzer Prize winning play (written and directed by Suzan-Lori Parks) now onstage at Two River Theater in Red Bank. (Photo by T.C. Erickson)

“Watch me close, watch me close,” says the man at the cardboard tabletop — and when the master hustler goes into his streetcorner spiel, the mesmerizing rhythm of his three-card game is exactly the sort of siren song that’s washed many a hapless “mark” onto the rocks.

In the right set of hands, the Suzan-Lori Parks play Topdog/Underdog makes real music from its supercharged language and deliriously complicated character dynamics. In the top-shelf production now on display at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, some expert hands have convened to put forth a show that dazzles with rhythms and movement — while on the other side of the card exist some challenging observations on American history, and a powerhouse payoff that you may or may not have seen coming.

The title tells you pretty much all you need to know. In Three Card Monte, as in Life, somebody’s got to come out Topdog — and more than likely at somebody else’s expense. As for the two characters, Lincoln and Booth are a pair of African American siblings whose names suggest a collision-course appointment with some unavoidable destiny. To further drive home the point, older brother Lincoln is a man who makes his living by dressing up as Honest Abe (complete with stovepipe hat, beard and whiteface), and playing human target at a seedy arcade.

If playwright Parks paints the claustrophobic world of Topdog/Underdog in sometimes outlandish strokes — and if the modestly scaled dramatic duet reaches for thematic territory that stretches far beyond its squalid SRO room setting— then neither do its ambitions take anything away from the dramatic punch of the play, a work that earned its author the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002.

Ten years after that milestone premiere production, Topdog/Underdog is being revisited by two men who were instrumental in shepherding the play from NYC’s Public Theater to a berth on Broadway — John Dias and Michael Hurst, now respectively Artistic Director and Managing Director at Two River Theater Company. For the production that’s onstage now as the inaugural offering of TRTC’s 2012-2013 season, the Two River team has upped the ante by securing the services of the playwright herself as director.

This much-anticipated engagement represents Parks’ first hands-on go at her creation, and the playwright (whose “In the Blood” was also a Pulitzer nominee, and who adapted the recent Tony winning revival of  Porgy and Bess) has arrived in Red Bank with a fresh new take on this tale of two brothers, three cards and a whole lot of personal issues.

Who better to embody that tangled tango of dependency, competitiveness, petty betrayal and blood-bond devotion than a couple of real-life brothers — in this case Brandon J. Dirden and Jason Dirden, two actors who bring to the cardboard table not just an impeccable Broadway pedigree (Brandon in Clybourne Park, Jason in  Fences, among many other shared and individual credits), but also an indefinable something that resonates between the lines of dialogue and bits of business.

In the hands of the Dirden tagteam, this is anything but stunt casting — the actors are sufficiently dissimilar in build and style to quickly melt away any feeling of novelty brother-act vaudeville. What’s left is a strong chemistry between two seasoned pros who, unlike their Cain-and-Abel characters, have learned to play very nicely with each other.

Bonded by mutual loss and pain (but serving to remind each other of their own failings), Lincoln (Brandon) and Booth (Jason) are a couple of ostensible grownups whose parents long ago abandoned them with those troublesome names — as well as an “inheritance” which, while it may or may not amount to anything at all, is apparently enough of a factor to come between two brothers who’ve leaned on each other for most of their adult lives.

The inability to function in that unseen world beyond their one-room hellhole (well realized by designer Christopher Akerlind, right down to the sink that’s no longer there) has reunited the brothers once more — inside a suffocating space with a single cot, no plumbing, and a makeshift table upon which “Three Card” Booth endeavors to sharpen his skills at “throwing the cards” (the street-scam game in which Lincoln once ruled as a local legend). Having split from his wife Cookie, however, the older brother is attempting only to pay the bills with a “real” job — while his younger sibling scratches out an existence shoplifting clothes and jewelry, waving a gun around, and pining for his alleged girlfriend, a no-show Godot by the name of “Amazing” Grace.

Over the course of two substantial but fast-moving acts, Lincoln and Booth drink, reminisce about good times and bad, model some fine boosted suits (costumes designed by Tony nominee ESosa), lie through their teeth — and are drawn inexorably into a climactic Three Card Monte throwdown, with that squirreled-away inheritance, and their entire past-present-future, at stake.

Acting in a way that suggests an intriguing collaborative process with their gifted director, the Dirdens run an emotional gamut during this dialogue-dense workout — a humor-infused drama that, while it has some deep-dish statements to deliver on topics like race, rage, respect and reinvention, finds much of its power in those moments when the movement and the repetitive rhythm take center stage. The brothers’ proud promenade in their stolen suits; Lincoln’s pantomime of his namesake’s final moments; that tense and terrible epic throwing of the cards — these are the ways in which Topdog/Underdog will haunt an audience’s dreams, and which, in its own deceptively modest way, sets the bar high in its keynote to the new season at Two River.

Topdog/Underdog continues through September 30. Tickets are $37 – $57 (with a discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger, and a limited amount of bargain-priced $20 seats) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on BeforePlay presentations, dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.


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