South Bnd Civic Theatre opened its production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Topdog/Underdog” Friday evening in the Warner Studio Theatre.
The two-character drama, directed by Laurisa LeSure, allows Paul Bertha and Benni Little, both SBCT veterans, the opportunity to explore the full range of human emotions, most especially as they are revealed in an intimate family situation.
It is the story of brothers Lincoln (Bertha) and Booth (Little), named by their father as a joke which inevitably turns sour.
Lincoln is the oldest, therefore the “topdog” of the duo, with “underdog” Booth struggling to take over his name-only position.
The two are living together in Booth’s cold-water flat (bathroom down the hall) after Lincoln’s wife, Cookie, kicked him out. Wearing a stove pipe hat, long coat, fake beard and white face makeup, Lincoln’s job is sitting in a booth in a nearby arcade as the target for would-be assassins.
He is the wage earner of the two, with Booth hoping to persuade his brother to return to his former – and more lucrative — street job of “throwing the cards” in Three-card Monte. The restless Booth spends his time practicing the art of the fast-talking deal, determined to be better than his brother who refuses to return to the game which resulted in the death of a friend.
As Booth waits for his on-again/off-again girlfriend Grace to arrive, Lincoln returns with the news that he has been fired, replaced by a wax dummy.
Facing a bleak future, the brothers think back on younger days, which each remembers differently.
Both attempt to determine why their parents left, each at a different time and each leaving a son with $500 — Booth’s from his mother (which he still has wrapped in the stocking in which she gave it to him) and Lincoln’s from his father (which he has already spent).
Both agree they are fine as long as they have each other. “It’s you and me taking on the world,” Booth declares.
Togetherness is short-lived, however. Booth’s shocking revelations plus Lincoln’s final Three-card Monte victory and his laughter at Booth’s attempt to beat him lead to the inevitable tragic conclusion.
The emotions are always close to the surface and instantly changeable. If love and hate are two sides of the same coin, these brothers have them to spare.
Little’s Booth is a firecracker, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. Moving between admiration for his older brother’s ability to “throw the cards” and his frustration at Lincoln’s refusal to include him in a return to the street con, he boasts of his success with women, his success as a shoplifter and his assurance that he can beat his brother at his own game.
As Lincoln, Bertha attempts to keep the peace in what remains of the fractured family, repeating the advice of his departing parent never to get married. He is, at first glance, the most solid brother, an impression that gradually disappears as his “normal” façade begins to crumble.
As Booth, Little is volatile and impulsive. He spins tales of a life in which his girlfriend is about to move in, requiring Lincoln to move out, and he is Three Card (a name he chooses for himself), the ace cardshark.
From the beginning, there is little doubt as to the ending but watching Bertha and Little gradually arrive at the point of no return makes for a sadly fascinating look at lives in which no one wins.
The set, designed by Jeff Barrick and Cliff Shoults, features two pieces of patched and shabby furniture, a number of empty bottles and several stacks of cardboard boxes labeled simply “Stuff.”
Played in the appropriate confines of the SBCT “black box” theater, LeSure’s direction underscores the few moments of humor, but all in all there is no “topdog” in this harsh look at life just off the streets..
“TOPDOG/UNDERDOG” plays through Aug. 19 in the Warner Studio Theatre at 403 North Main Street, South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112.