There's no doubt about it, this is a star vehicle—in only the best sense of the term. Suzan-Lori Parks' play is a two-hander of epic proportions, the story of two brothers with prophetic names who, maybe, are victims of the worst kind of joke. It's a glorious study of very particular choices and legacies that speak to universal truths. And in its "Los Angeles intimate theater premiere," this wonderfully consuming play is in the hands of crack team that pretty much rises to the challenge.
With unexpected staging and surprisingly subtle strokes, director Martin Papazian elicits sharp performances from M.D. Walton and A.K. Murtadha as African-American brothers living on the very dicey edge of urban decay. What Booth (Walton) calls home is one ratty room, with no running water, in an SRO building, bathroom down the hall, boys. He's temporarily sharing it with his brother, Lincoln (Murtadha), who's the one paying the bills. In a kind of bizarre, in-your-face twist, Lincoln's current gig is playing the role of the legendary dead president in a neighborhood arcade. He dresses up in the coat, stovepipe hat, and beard—as well as, yes, whiteface—so he can get shot by visitors looking for all-American fun. Although Booth is perennially unemployed, he contributes to the household by "boosting" creature comforts such as sharkskin suits and whiskey, or "medicine." He's also got plans: marrying his sweetheart and hitting it big by hustling Three Card Monty. It doesn't take long to see through the cardboard dreams and façades of both brothers. But what fascinating, emotionally gripping things we find when we do just that, layer after layer, until we hit the harshest of realities.
Papazian has put together a satisfying package to frame this tale. The gritty picture painted by scenic designer Peter Wooley, together with lighting by Heather & Rich Designs, is striking, and Cricket S. Myers' powerful sound design adds a plaintive edge. But it's as it should be that the evening belongs to the actors: Walton's puppylike, baby-faced firecracker is a fantastic counterpart to Murtadha's complex, defeated "philosophizer." Together they are funny and touching and terrifying. And even if there are a few missteps—and it's definitely a stretch for the actors to sustain the enormous burden of this material for the duration—the evening has more than its fair share of high points. In the end, this "Topdog/Underdog" delivers.
Presented by TopDog Productions in association with the Elephant Theatre Company at the Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Aug. 6–Sept. 12. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (323) 960-7719. www.topdogunderdog.com.