In a program note to "Topdog/Underdog," Suzan-Lori Parks explains that what prompted her to write the play was watching a three-card monte hustler on Canal St. At the time, she was with her husband, a musician who used to play it between sets and who explained its scam to her. Parks decided to use her newfound knowledge to revive a character from an earlier play, an African-American man who portrays Abraham Lincoln in an amusement arcade - and who pantomimes his enjoyment of "Our American Cousin" while customers pay to shoot him in the back. In her new play, the Lincoln character, named, portentously enough, Lincoln, has a younger brother named Booth. Get it? Booth, who supports himself by "boosting" (stealing), aspires to be a three-card monte hustler. Lincoln, with whom he shares a bleak room without even running water, is willing to impart some of his skills to his kid brother. As a play, "Topdog/Underdog" is a kind of shuck, which is fine for something rooted in three-card monte. It may be more helpful to think of it as a violence-oriented piece of vaudeville. There is no real consistency in Parks' portrayal of the brothers. From what little we learn of their past, they come from a broken, lower-class home. Booth, for example, makes reference to "the child protection bitch."
Both witnessed, in the most literal way, their parents' infidelities. When their parents ran out on them, they had to hustle to survive. For the most part, their vocabulary reflects these bleak beginnings. But sometimes Parks gives them middle-class jokes that don't fit. Booth, arranging the milk crates on which he does three-card monte, refers to them as "a modular unit." Lincoln, using actors' jargon, says his job in the arcade is "not a stretch."
Nor is the plot, such as it is, very compelling. The brothers spar, reconcile and spar again. A gun is introduced. Guess what! The whole thing makes more sense if you think of it as a series of routines. Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def (in his Broadway debut) are both marvelous performers who give the material the vitality and sheen of elegant jazz riffs. It's fun, for example, to watch the two play three-card monte - Def treating the cards gingerly as if they were explosives, Wright massaging them like Houdini. Wright is particularly funny showing us Lincoln at the theater in the broad manner of a minstrel show. Def, who has great stage presence, is sometimes unintelligible, but this is not a great loss. The play has been directed by George C. Wolfe, who has maximized its theatricality, particularly when the grim set is lit eerily and he has the men cast haunting shadows on the back wall. "Topdog/Underdog" may not hang together as a play, but it gives Def and Wright a chance for true star turns.
For thrilling theatrical fireworks, you're not going to do much better than Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," which opened at the Ambassador Theatre last night.
Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def play comically eccentric brothers, down on their luck, barely surviving in a twilight world of squalor, rivalry and illusion.
One is called Lincoln (Wright) and the other Booth (Def), a joke of the parents who finally abandoned them.
Lincoln, the elder of the brothers, scratches a living by impersonating Abe Lincoln (in white-face, complete with beard, frock-coat and stovepipe hat) at a seaside sideshow.
But Lincoln had a finer, if shadier past. He was the king of a three-card-monte gang, who managed to give up while he was still ahead. He's not anymore.
Booth, who rents the room they occupy and therefore sleeps in the only bed, is a two-bit thief and would-be hustler.
Booth wants to become what Lincoln was - a big-time con artist and admired gambling crook.
"Topdog/Underdog" is not so much a play as an interplay between these two siblings joined to one another by blood connections, family ties and an atavistic kind of race memory.
This is by far Parks' most readily communicable work so far. It is not a play you learn from, but an evening you experience - and enjoy.
The excellent George C. Wolfe has to be as much an umpire between the two players as a director, making sure the intermeshing tones of their two characters are right while attending to the important pacing of the play.
Riccardo Hernandez has grimly caught the setting of a sleazy rooming house, Emilio Sosa's generally tatterdemalion costuming is spot on, and Scott Zielinski's lighting is a subtle study in mood.
But it's the acting that counts.
When the play was first produced off-Broadway at Wolfe's Public Theater last summer, Wright was paired with Don Cheadle.
Mos Def, a hip-hop recording star making his Broadway debut, is less technically skilled than Cheadle.
But he brings wonderful conviction to this shambling outcast, filled to the brim with a conscious lack of self-esteem and constantly trying to emerge from the older brother's flickering shadow.
Wright, as the far more centered Lincoln, does a sensational virtuoso job, shading the character with dimensional clownish reality, and offering a portrait of a man who has mislaid his life somewhere and given up searching.
No, it's not a great play, but with these two it is certainly a smashing evening in the theater.
Do you find yourself feeling limp and rundown when the curtain falls on a Broadway show? Are tapping chorines, roaring jungle creatures and naked movie stars just not doing the trick for you anymore? Then take a long drink of the tonic now available at the Ambassador Theater, where ''Topdog/Underdog'' jolted open last night. The two lonely, rowdy brothers who make up the entire cast of characters of Suzan-Lori Parks's thrilling comic drama give off more energy than the ensembles of ''42nd Street,'' ''The Lion King'' and ''The Graduate'' combined. And it's not just the kinetic joy and focus of Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, the actors playing them, that makes the show so revitalizing.
The play, first produced downtown at the Joseph Papp Public Theater last year, vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed. Like ''Invisible Man,'' Ralph Ellison's landmark novel of 1952, ''Topdog/Underdog'' considers nothing less than the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.
But don't think for a second that Ms. Parks is delivering a lecture or reciting a ponderous poem. Under the bravura direction of George C. Wolfe, a man who understands that showmanship and intellectual substance are not mutually exclusive, ''Topdog/Underdog'' is a deeply theatrical experience.
This family portrait of two brothers specializing in the sidewalk scam called three-card monte is all about poses and pretenses, large and small, that somehow take you closer to the truth. That's a fair working definition of the theater, but not one that's been put into practice much of late.
Tighter and tenser than it was at the Public last spring, when the production starred Mr. Wright and Don Cheadle, ''Topdog/Underdog'' now emerges as the most exciting new home-grown play to hit Broadway since Mr. Wolfe's production of Tony Kushner's ''Angels in America.'' And it's blowing through the dusty, dim corridors of a lackluster theater season like the breeze of a long-delayed spring.
Even five years ago few theatergoers would have selected Ms. Parks as a playwright likely to land on Broadway, much less with such an entertaining wallop. This, after all, is a woman who wrote defiantly nonlinear dramas with intimidating titles (try saying ''Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom'' real fast three times), works that unfolded like allegorical nightmares.
With ''Topdog,'' however, Ms. Parks demonstrates that she can shape a captivating narrative without sacrificing her high thematic ambitions. She even incorporates one of the more far-fetched metaphoric devices from her ''America Play'' into ''Topdog'' -- the idea of a black man portraying Abraham Lincoln in an arcade shooting booth -- and gets you to accept it without blinking.
The character here who is so improbably employed really is named Lincoln, and he is portrayed by Mr. Wright in what is surely the season's most intricately layered performance.
Lincoln is a former master of three-card monte, but he has forsaken the con game for a more legitimate form of deception, ''dressing up like some dead white man,'' as his brother disdainfully puts it.
This less assured younger brother, played by Mos Def, would like to become a monte master himself. He even has plans to change his name to Three-Card. His given name? It's Booth, which gives you some idea of Ms. Parks's chutzpah.
The fatalism implicit in such nomenclature is indeed acted out in the seedy boarding-house room the brothers share. It has been designed by Riccardo Hernández with the bruised, brown-toned look of a faded old photograph, reflecting Ms. Parks's premise that everyone is a prisoner of the past.
''Topdog'' is of course a variation of sorts on the story of Cain and Abel, a tale that has traditionally served American artists well in exploring the divided nature of their country, from John Steinbeck's ''East of Eden'' to Sam Shepard's ''True West.''
Ms. Parks gives the archetype her own dizzying spin. Brotherly love and hatred is translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth, when their parents walked out on them, and who will never be able entirely to trust anyone, including (and especially) each other. Implicit in their relationship is the idea that to live is to con.
That's the central dynamic of ''Topdog,'' and it is reflected in everything from idle sexual boasting to truly murderous lies. The rhythms of three-card monte, demonstrated so smoothly by Lincoln and so ineptly by Booth, are the rhythms of the play.
They infuse the evening with a percussive tension, and you hear the same cadences in the spiels with which each brother tries to bend the other to his will.
Mr. Wright and Mos Def execute these dazzlingly written spiels with inspired shading and variety. The essence of the characters is in their language, a poeticized vernacular that onstage sounds entirely real. And under Mr. Wolfe's direction, the actors have discovered a bold matching body language: a polyglot ballet of struts and slumps, of jiggles and slides.
This varied physical idiom shows up in some wonderful burlesque turns, which are given accents both diverting and haunting by Scott Zielinksi's fine lighting. There is Mos Def's shoplifter's striptease, during which Booth divests himself of layers of stolen clothing to the music of James Brown.
Then there is the magical marvel of Mr. Wright's bringing a Lincolnesque stovepipe hat to autonomous life. Clothes make the man in ''Topdog'' in telling and novel ways. (The astute costume designer is Emilio Sosa.)
At the Public, ''Topdog'' was unquestionably Mr. Wright's show. Now the fraternal fight is more evenly matched. Mr. Cheadle was a spirited Booth, but he was never scary in the way the character has to be if the play's second act is going to work. Mos Def, best known as a rap artist, finds both the delightful innocence and the harrowing brutality in the role of a little brother who never grew up.
In staging ''Topdog'' for Broadway, Mr. Wolfe occasionally overdoes the comic shtick, particularly in the first act. But he has transformed the originally weaker second act into anxious, compelling drama.
Mr. Wright is every bit as good as he was last year, which is to say he is superb. To watch his Lincoln impersonating Abe Lincoln getting shot at Ford's Theater is still one of the funniest and most disturbing bits of pantomime I've ever seen.
In a sense the whole play is about life as a series of theatrical postures: some voluntary, some reflexive and some imposed by centuries of history. In one of the evening's most haunting sequences, Booth describes a regular customer at the arcade who ''shoots on the left, whispers on the right.'' Among the cryptic things he says: ''Does the show stop when no one's watching, or does the show go on?''
For Lincoln and Booth, it's always showtime. That is both their misfortune and the great good fortune of New York theatergoers.
Move over, Bialystock & Bloom: You're not the only sensational double-act on Broadway anymore. Playing a pair of tight-knit, loose-limbed brothers sparring over their future and their past in a dingy tenement room, Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def -- the latter a rapper and movie actor making an electrifying Broadway debut -- turn Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog" into an utterly mesmerizing evening of theater.
The play is a risky choice for Broadway -- at the reviewed performance, there were rows of empty seats -- but with the Great White Way flooded with synthetic and cynical product, there's something inspiring about its scruffy presence at the Ambassador. Pulitzer or no Pulitzer, this is hardly a flawless dramatic work -- its languid structure may be the knottiest problem for uptown audiences -- but the vitality, freshness and gritty lyricism of Parks' writing are unlike anything to be heard on a Broadway stage right now. She may currently be more skilled as poet than playwright, but her language, as interpreted by this pair of strutting Stradivarii, makes intoxicating music here.
The production, directed with flair by George C. Wolfe, is essentially the same as it was at the Public Theater last fall, with the significant addition of Mos Def replacing Don Cheadle. In a two-character play, the replacement of one actor can be seismic, and indeed the chemistry between Mr. Def (couldn't resist) and Mr. Wright is entirely new. Cheadle was a more introverted, gentle presence; Wright, an actor of fine sensitivities, seemed to key his performance to his somber vibe. Mos Def, by contrast, is a blazingly charismatic performer, a born showman (it's easy to believe he began acting at age 9), and there's accordingly a stronger electrical current running between the two players.
That heightened, adrenaline-laced rapport significantly raises the theatrical temperature of a play about a pair of brothers who've lived in each other's pockets since their parents abandoned them, one after the other, when they were 16 and 11. Lincoln (Wright), the elder, is a specialist in the three-card monte scam who's trying to go straight. He's got a regular job, sort of -- he's paid a meager hourly wage to impersonate President Lincoln at an arcade for folks who want to get their kicks by re-enacting his assassination (the preposterousness of this detail in an essentially naturalistic play still rankles, although it is significant to the play's subterranean themes).
The younger Booth (Mos Def) wants to draw him back to the game, but that's only one of the many causes of amiable but quietly fraught tension between the brothers. In one early, delightful setpiece, the brothers conduct a lengthy, entirely wordless battle over the subject of who will put dinner on the table, using a remarkably lucid language of snorts and shrugs. Money, three-card monte and women are the primary subjects of their barbed interplay.
The play is full of deliciously funny, neo-vaudevillian routines -- too poor for a TV, these two look to each other for entertainment -- and they are delivered with delightful magnetism and limber physical grace. For all the inventive wordplay of Parks' monologues and the slouchy, slangy charm of the brothers' banter, the actors virtually dance their roles, too -- Booth's funky ballet of disrobement, as he slowly sheds two entire suits of clothing he's shoplifted, is a showstopper.
It's also true that Parks' writing dances around the play's deeper currents in a way that's a dramatic liability. The play is at heart about the brothers' quietly desperate attempts to outrun the legacies of their personal history. Left without parents at a young age, Booth is in some ways still a child in tenuous control of his emotions, and Mos Def is admirably sensitive to the fluctuating currents of his psychic temperature. Lincoln is aware of the urgent need to escape a life of scamming and hustling that circumstance has mapped out for him -- but fate, in the form of the loss of his meager foothold on respectable employment, kicks him back down.
But the writing never brings into focus the irrational extremity of Booth's frustration at his brother or his sometime girlfriend, or the despair that sends Lincoln back to the scam. Both seem to be having a fine old time until, instantly, they're not. As a result, the play's tragic climax feels superimposed -- it doesn't bring the powerful charge it should.
It can be argued, of course, that Parks' point is precisely that the brothers' family history -- and the economic circumstances they were born into -- has determined their ugly fates. They could no sooner escape them than President Lincoln could avoid his fatal bullet. But this is satisfying only intellectually, not dramatically. It could be both.
But if it doesn't achieve the emotional force one might hope for, the production still provides a thrilling chance to see two performers connecting with their characters, with the words of a gifted writer -- and with each other -- in a way that comes along all too rarely on Broadway, or indeed anywhere else.