Topdog/Underdog Review: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Corey Hawkins Star

It’s a testament to the sharpness of Suzan-Lori Park’s imagination and perceptiveness that “Topdog/Underdog” feels just as vital and electric today as it did 20 years ago. The first Broadway revival, which opened at the Golden Theater tonight, crackles like a live wire – an American fable with fingers stuck in a socket. Add in career highlights from Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and it’s a theatrical event in essence, as it must be seen here and now.

The 2001 play, for which Parks became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has risen to prominence in American writing over the past two decades, inspiring a generation of playwrights concerned with race, capitalism, and their Traces of blood wrestle roots in the history of our country. It’s also light-hearted and fun and magnetically entertaining, a slow-burning spectacle of dramatic fireworks. On the side, Parks is known for her liberal, almost sculptural use of space. Directed by Kenny Leon, she fills this production with pride and heart.

It is easy to read the two brothers, named Lincoln and Booth, as allegories in a scathing joke of parents who abandoned them. They share cramped quarters in a dorm where their rivalry and trust in each other bounce off the walls. Booth the Younger is a schemer and dreamer, a shoplifter and hapless womanizer who exemplifies the hustle – a strategy for surviving the system by playing it. Lincoln mastered this route but abandoned it after a sidekick was killed. Now he does the “honest work” by disguising himself as the Great Emancipator in an arcade, where he rehearses his death for trigger-happy patrons. “It’s a living,” says Lincoln. “But you’re not alive,” Booth replies, and Lincoln replies, “I’m alive, aren’t I?”

They are also men of appetite, pride, and endurance, which are rendered in great detail. As Lincoln pulls together the taped pages of Booth’s porn scraps collection, the younger replies, “If I wasn’t looking after myself on my own, I’d be out there,” spending money he doesn’t have and shooting people “out of a need for unresolved.” sexual redemption,” and besides – he made it with Lincoln’s ex after she dumped him because he couldn’t get it right (!). Ribbing each other, the pair grasps the carotid artery and retreats in a poetic rhythm bristling with bile shared only among relatives.

Both stars demonstrate agility and precision that disappear under their natural lightness. Every moment is absolutely convincing. Hawkins, a Tony nominee for Six Degrees of Separation, wears Lincoln’s restless resignation as the weather-beaten frock coat in which he mimes his own assassination. It’s a remarkable turn that integrates the character’s seeming contradictions into a thoroughly believable man of principle and deception. Abdul-Mateen II, who broke through in his Emmy-winning role on HBO’s Watchmen, makes an extraordinary Broadway debut, bringing grace and smoldering resentment to Booth’s hopeful delusion. The skillful sparring and scrum between the two is such a delight to watch that it can even lull the audience into a false sense of comfort. Brothers could joke forever like that, right?

The wisdom of the play’s insights — about history (which people like to see “unfold as they folded it”), longing, legacy, and more — has only gotten sharper with time. And they benefit from the lived and yet great presentation of Leon’s production. Ornate gold drapes recede in waves around the dingy bedroom in which the brothers huddle, suggesting a broader, more stately context (set by Arnulfo Maldonado). The production feels like a timeless pageant and a peek through the smeared window at the same time.

There’s a downside to the thrill of a long overdue revival of “Topdog/Underdog” that feels so decidedly in the moment. It’s true that too little has changed in the system that demeans black men, that demands rush and consumerism even as it consumes everyone in its path. It’s also true that the play distills much more than how people are shaped by social forces by digging into what makes them tick. It’s a time bomb that will always be ready to explode. Topdog/Underdog Review: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Corey Hawkins Star

Charles Jones

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