Los Angeles Theater Review: TOPDOG/UNDERDOG (The Lillian Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Tony Frankel on August 11, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


In the current production of Topdog/Underdog, now playing at the Lillian Theatre, it’s difficult to cull a deeper meaning within Suzan-Lori Park’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Two black con artist brothers, Lincoln (Link) and Booth, share a squalid boarding house room in New York. Booth is determined to hone his skills as a three-card swindler, a con game that the proficient Link is determined to leave behind. In fact, Lincoln now has a job portraying Honest Abe, sitting silently in white face awaiting customers who pay to “assassinate” him.

At the top of the play, Booth is practicing “three-card monte” on milk crates when his brother sneaks in with a deathly-white face, top hat and fake beard. A startled Booth whips out his gun and points it at his brother. It’s a fantastic set-up as the tension is revved up from the start, but for this play to crackle, it must retain that taut anticipation throughout. Unfortunately, even with the most capable actors, the misguided and unfocused direction creates unfathomably long stretches of business when a simple beat would have sufficed. Surely, the pace may pick up naturally throughout the run, but director Marty Papazian has created some truly awkward staging in a house that already has challenging sight lines: it surprises how often the brothers turn their backs to the audience, upstage each other, and stand in profile.


Certainly, Papazian has succeeded in the way the two actors relate to each other: M.D. Walton, as Booth, is demonstrably forlorn and conflicted in his inability to make money and do well with women – he looks to his brother to guide him, but eventually blames Link for his own shortcomings. Walton’s performance is rich and nuanced, scary and vulnerable. Likewise, A.K. Murtadha (Link) offers textured layers of tenderness, regret, longing, and frustration; but when he drinks, swigging bourbon as if it were iced tea, his drunken stupor indicates intoxication; it never fully reaches authenticity.

Although this production runs hot and cold, it nonetheless has much to recommend because it still allows Park’s fantastic play to shine; it is a profound examination of those who exist on the fringe of society. When the tension is tight as a rubber band, the universal message of hope and despair ring true – and there are moments of incredible tension; when the pace is slow and deliberate, it feels like I am sitting in a stained chair in the corner of their room, disconnected.and uninterested. Act One ends with Lincoln reviewing his life and, like a heroin addict, returns to the three cards, reigniting his relationship to the world of con. It takes so long for the shift to occur that any tension thus created is entirely washed away. It could make all the difference if the play were tightened (by fifteen minutes at least) and the staging was clarified.

Peter Wooley’s set looks like a film noir adaptation of The Shining; it is a lovely, but painted as if water has been symmetrically dripping down the walls like ectoplasm; Heather & Rich Designs offers realistically creepy lighting, but then shines pools of green at the oddest moments. One wonders if director Papazian was trying to be filmic in his direction. Whatever subtext he was going for completely eluded me.

The machinery is in place for Topdog/Underdog; now rev up the engine.

photo by Randolph Adams Photography

Lillian Theatre in Hollywood
ends on September 12, 2010
for tickets, visit http://www.topdogunderdog.com/

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