St. Louis Actors' Studio opens its seventh season with the intriguing "Top Dog / Underdog," the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning drama by Suzan-Lori Parks. The play takes several twists and turns as it tells the story of two brothers trying to make their way in an uncaring world.
Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, abandoned by their parents when they were young teenagers, have somehow managed to scratch their way to adulthood. The eldest, Lincoln, has been kicked out of his home and is staying with his brother, temporarily. Younger brother Booth is down on his luck but always looking for the fast and easy break. He dreams of becoming a success hustling tourists and playing three-card monte.
Booth's dreams are not without foundation, however; Lincoln used to throw cards and had a reputation as being among the best. Booth believes he could make a go of it if Lincoln would just show him how to succeed in the street hustle. Lincoln has foresworn cards, however, and in an ironic twist, is working as a Lincoln impersonator at a local arcade. Tourists pay the operator for the chance to play Booth and "assassinate" Lincoln. The job is low pay and somewhat demeaning, but it's currently the only income the two men have.
As bleak as the situation is, there's genuine warmth between the two. Unfortunately, there's also a lack of trust, and the air is permeated by a sense of struggle and failure. The natural competitive tension between brothers is heightened by both their past and present situations, creating a sharp back and forth between the men. In the end, the most important lesson of "Top Dog / Underdog" may be that, once broken, some things can never be fixed.
The language and phrasing are exceptional, and Chauncy Thomas, as Booth, and Reginald Pierre, as Lincoln, handle the pacing and emotional changes expertly.
Thomas's Booth is at times cocky and surefire, but with a nervous energy that reveals uncertainty and a lack of confidence. Booth is prone to exaggeration, puffing himself up and dramatizing his exploits. He's hiding a gaping hole left by his parents as best he can, but is clearly unable, or unwilling, to change. Thomas's performance captures Booth's fragile psyche in nuances and gestures that resonate with hidden pain.
Pierre's Lincoln seems more reserved, perhaps even a little distant. True to the big brother stereotype, he is always willing to make the first gesture or acquiesce to keep the peace. This has a calming effect on Booth, at least to a point. But Lincoln has a fire in him that, once struck, burns intently, leading to the final conflict between the brothers. Pierre shows us the fine line between self-control and temptation. When he finally breaks, it is with a pent-up frustration that energizes his character, underscoring the futility of the final scene.
The tension builds slowly, befitting the mood of the play, and director Elizabeth Helman keeps the show moving briskly without rushing to conflict. The play is not without its lighter moments, but the prevailing tone is one of stark realism, which is further enhanced by the design.
The set design, by Cristie Johnston with lighting by Patrick Huber, artfully recreates a run down apartment, complete with dark shadows, visibly crumbling walls and cheap, improvised furniture. Brief musical interludes serve as transition between each scene allowing just enough time for a reset, but the story, much like the apartment itself, seems to be crumbling around these two brothers.
Audiences will appreciate the fluid, poetic dialogue of this play, and Thomas and Pierre deliver strong performances that will keep you fully involved and wishing for a glimmer of hope. The characters are genuinely compelling and the all too familiar story of lives of desperation leading to equally desperate actions seems sadly poignant.
"Top Dog / Underdog" runs through October 6, 2013; for more information visit www.stlas.org