Actor’s Choice opened Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Topdog/Underdog” Thursday in the Henry Clay Theatre. Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, this tense, finely-acted two-hander explores the relationship between two adult brothers, Lincoln and Booth, as they struggle with a legacy of abandonment by their parents, masculine identity, racism and the lure of a life of crime.
Linc (Keith McGill) has been looking after his little brother Booth (Brian Lee West) since their parents abandoned them at 16 and 11, respectively. Linc made his living as a street hustler, an expert at the card con game Three-Card Monte, but after his marriage fell apart, he attempted to go straight with an even stranger job at a local arcade: dressing as Abraham Lincoln (complete with fake beard and white-face) and letting tourists “shoot” him in daily reenactments of the president’s assassination. As metaphors for the systematic destruction of the promise of a better life go–on a micro and macro level–it’s delightfully absurd.
As Lincoln-playing-Lincoln, every bit of McGill’s bearing is filled with defeat when the older brother returns nightly to Booth’s squalid room and removes his costume. The brothers reenact their adolescent survival ritual of pooling the week’s take and budgeting out for rent, utilities and booze, with Linc quite poignantly supporting Booth once again. Linc shrugs off his demeaning job by writing songs and secretly rehearsing his card game, becoming his old confident self as he relives past glories in private. McGill lives in all of Linc’s spaces like a native, creating a seamless and sympathetic portrait of a man who holds out hope for a stable life despite a lifetime of evidence against it.
Booth wants Linc to teach him the secrets of hustling cards, but the loss of Linc’s crew has scared the elder brother straight. Booth has no use for a life of service and with few practical skills, prefers to shoplift what he wants and needs and hold out for a more glamorous opportunity that will garner him the respect and validation he desperately needs.
West is a volatile presence on stage, his moods swinging rapidly from charismatic, seductive smiles to explosive anger. The playwright has created a tricky situation–all of the action takes place at home and only Booth and Linc appear, so it’s difficult to tell just how unbalanced Booth truly is. At times, West seems to swing too wildly for the fences, but his character might be just that wild. But because Booth’s erratic behavior has become normalized within their small family unit and we never get the benefit of seeing any other off-stage characters’ reactions (like Grace, the woman Booth wants to marry), the audience has no baseline to work from. This becomes particularly apparent at the end of the play, when it’s not clear if Booth’s actions are born of situational desperation or a deeply-rooted disturbance, a distinction that should matter.
The play is finely acted, so the effectiveness of Ellis’ rehearsal process and passion for the play is evident, but the gaps in production level are distracting. All levels of theater are available in Louisville, from professional touring companies with award-winning design to shoestring productions whose design aesthetic is deliberately threadbare (in fact, that’s part of the appeal). Not every show needs to look Broadway-perfect, but there are ways to help the audience suspend disbelief on a tight budget. This production makes poor use of its space in the Henry Clay Theatre, crowding the action into a tiny elevated stage that looked hastily assembled and creaked noisily under the actors’ feet in every scene. The set was raked (built at an angle) but the blocking didn’t seem to call for it, so there didn’t appear to be any solid reason why the set had to be built separately and couldn’t just rest on the stage floor. Several scene changes lagged, pointing to perhaps inadequate backstage support. A crucial sound cue at the end of the show was so muffled Friday night that it seriously undercut the drama of the scene.
These might be minor concerns in the grand scheme of a production — after all, not every small company has a professional theater’s technical staff on hand. But I’ve seen companies work miracles with tight budgets by developing close, mutually-beneficial relationships with Louisville’s extraordinarily deep community of talented designers, bringing them in from the top of the rehearsal process and allowing them to be part of the artistic development of the show. Actor’s Choice is a company that calls upon local directors to bring the plays they are passionate about to life. Going forward, is the company adequately equipped to give their directors the necessary production support?
“Topdog/Underdog” runs through January 20. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with Sunday matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($17 for students and seniors) and can be reserved by calling (502) 495-8358.