With all the negativity that’s been heaped on the current revival of Porgy and Bess on Broadway recently, one might forget how great a playwright that show’s collaborator Suzan-Lori Parks is. Well luckily for us in Southern California, there’s an excellent reminder of Parks’ talents that has just arrived at South Coast Repertory where a revival of her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Topdog/Underdog opened last week. The play is filled with multiple, complicated layers of meaning and is steeped in mythology, both American and more ancient. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, share a dilapidated apartment. Lincoln brings in what little money they have through his arcade job where he dresses as Abraham Lincoln in white-face for visitor to pay money and mock-assassinate him with blanks. Meanwhile, the unemployed Booth, periodically interrupts his fantasies of his own animal magnetism with efforts to cajole his now reformed brother to re-enter the hustle by teaching him the ins and out of dealing three-card monte. The lengthy dialog between these two characters unfolds to reveal much about their history, including their abandonment by both parents as children and the wounds, both imagined and real, that they continue to nurse from those days.
This is powerful material and, though it can be very comic, there is always a sense of menace, particularly considering Booth’s penchant to stay armed at all times. Like all good mythology-based stories, the ending seems inevitable and it’s the points that Parks wants to make about history and in particular African-American history in the U.S. that are the glue that keeps the show together. The chemistry between the leads in the show is crucial and both Curtis McClarin who plays Lincoln and Larry Bates, who plays Booth, managed a believable interaction. But in other ways this production is not what you might expect. Director Seret Scott has gone for an exceedingly naturalistic, almost sentimental take on the story. The staging plays down the more abstract and symbolic parts of the story toning down much of the menace that exists between the brother in an attempt to make a real or at least identifiably conventional relationship between the two. It’s a markedly different approach from the 2004 staging offered at the Mark Taper Forum and has its good and bad points. On the one hand when conflict does boil over between the brothers it is more surprising and unexpected. However, it can also make some of the comedy in the script feel very much like a sitcom. Still, the substrate here is an excellent one and SCR manages to remind us why Suzan-Lori Parks still matters even a decade after this major success with a worthwhile and still provocative statement about America. The show continues in Orange County through the 29th.
And one other note - SCR, a leader in new play development in the region, has just initiated another new and exciting program called "Studio SCR," which will bring in an array of local artists with more off-beat material in its Nicholas Studio space. There are short weekend runs, but there are two shows recently seen here in L.A. already on the schedule that deserve mention. Steven Connell and Sekou Andrews' hip-hop, spoken word meditation on language and race, The Word Begins, which was last seen as part of the RADAR LA festival in 2011 will appear Jan 19-21. Further into the spring, Robert Cucuzza's twist on Strindberg's Miss Julie, Cattywampus will return. The show was the highlight of last year's NOW Festival at REDCAT and I would highly recommend you catch it in June 22-24.