The Actors Group production of "Topdog/Underdog" has magnificent acting, but unlike plays that may showcase actors’ talent at the expense of storytelling, pacing or continuity, the TAG show is a winner on all counts.
Credit Harry Wong III with directing of the year’s best contemporary dramas.
Nothing drags. Nothing happens that seems inconsistent with what we know of the characters. Nothing artificial or illogical is thrust into the story to end our interest in what will happen next.
Moses Goods III and the actor currently known as Q—two of the top talents currently performing on the local stage—are perfectly matched in this gripping, Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of two highly competitive brothers trying to work their way out of poverty and street crime. One is trying to go straight, the other wants his brother to help him hone his criminal skills.
Where: The Actors Group Theatre, 1116 Smith St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through June 27. Additional show at 7:30 p.m. June 23; no performance on June 25
Cost: $20 general admission; $15 seniors; $12 for students, military and groups of 10 or more. $10 admission for all on Thursdays.
Info: 722-6941, www.taghawaii.net
Goods is superb as Lincoln, the older brother, who walked away from a successful career "throwing the cards" in a three-card monte game after one of his partners in the con was murdered. Lincoln now makes a meager living portraying Abraham Lincoln in an arcade where people pay to "assassinate" him with a cap pistol; he knows that his predecessor at the arcade, a white man, got paid more for the job than he does, but he sticks with it because it is "a sit-down job with benefits."
"I don’t touch the cards!" Lincoln exclaims, but living the straight life means sleeping on a recliner in his younger brother’s crumbling one-room apartment, giving his brother spending money, and paying for their living expenses.
Q is equally strong as Booth, a skilled "booster" (shoplifter) who envies his older brother’s legendary skill with the cards. Booth thinks he has what it takes to be a top card thrower, but Lincoln refuses to teach him—let alone work the con with him.
"I don’t touch the cards!" Lincoln says again.
End of story.
Or is it?
Goods utilizes his formidable skills across a tremendous range of emotions in what becomes a career-best performance. Q reprises some facets of his work as Boy Willie on TAG’s recent production of "The Piano Lesson," but Booth is a far more complicated and demanding role. Q meets every challenge in it.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks tells the brothers’ fascinating story in superb style. Playwrights often use expository conversations as an easy — and lazy — way to get the audience up to speed on the characters’ past, but here, the issues the two bickering brothers share make their periodic conversations about the past seem natural. And so we learn about the traumas of their childhood, the reasons neither can fully commit to long-term relationships, and the knowledge each has of the other’s weaknesses.
Expletives fly in realistic inner-city style. The humor is rough—sometimes bawdy, sometimes poignant. It’s one great one-line quip or putdown after another.
Set designer Andy Alvarado’s moldering slum apartment sets the mood from the moment the lights go up and makes Booth’s desire to improve his lot in life not only understandable, but almost palpable.