There is a gunshot in “Topdog/Underdog,” the shining first production of Two River Theater Company’s 2012-13 season. Maybe you don’t expect it because of all the comedy. Maybe you do expect it because the gun has been too visible onstage not to play an important role. I was pretty sure I knew what lay ahead, but it was still a shock. Cheers to Jason Dirden, the shooter, and to Suzan-Lori Parks, the playwright, who also directed.Equal kudos to Brandon J. Dirden, the other actor in this two-character comic drama. The Dirdens, brothers in real life, play brothers whose parents thought it would be funny to name them Lincoln (Brandon J. Dirden), as in Abraham, and Booth (Jason Dirden), as in John Wilkes, Lincoln’s assassin. But then, as we learn in Ms. Parks’s eloquently profane exposition, these were not the world’s most responsible parents.
Ms. Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Topdog/Underdog,” which opened at the Public Theater in New York in 2001, with Don Cheadle as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln. It moved to Broadway the following year, with Mos Def replacing Mr. Cheadle, and earned Tony Award nominations and effusive praise for its insight into the role of deception and betrayal in some black men’s lives.
In the Two River production, the tragedy is as much about misguided, seemingly limited choices in the Here and Now (the play’s stated setting) as it is about those other evils. If, in the world many of us live in, a girlfriend hurts a young man’s pride, the man might post something unflattering on Facebook. It is highly unlikely that he would see violence as the answer. If an employee loses a job because his employer is making cutbacks, his first thought would probably not be, oh, well, time for a life of crime. But what we see around us, in our families and communities, rules our responses.
In “Topdog/Underdog,” three-card monte is the family business. Lincoln, the older brother, used to be a master at this street hustle, in which the tourists can be very good at choosing the right card — until real money is on the line. But violence erupted after a game, and Lincoln saw a friend killed. So he made the difficult decision to get an honest, salaried job.
His funny-sad new occupation is posing as Abraham Lincoln (in whiteface) at a shooting arcade and pretending to fall dead each time a paying customer shoots him with a toy weapon. So Brandon Dirden makes his entrance in a stovepipe hat, a 19th-century coat and a familiar beard. He is afraid his costume would be stolen if he left it at work.
Lincoln, separated from his wife, is staying with Booth — very briefly, both men say — in his dingy, underfurnished, boardinghouse-style room. The bathroom, shared with other tenants, is in the hall. The men’s only privacy is a three-panel screen, which is placed in front of Booth’s single bed in one scene when he wants to spend time with his collection of magazines devoted to nude photos of women. Lincoln sleeps in a recliner chair.
Booth’s career goal is to go into three-card monte, too, but he does not have his big brother’s gift. He does have a talent, though, for “boosting,” or shoplifting, an activity that neither man exhibits any disapproval of or guilt about. Ms. Parks gives Booth an entertaining musical striptease in which he removes the suits, shirts and ties he has stolen that day. The costumes are by ESosa, who also did them for the original production 11 years ago.
As Act II begins, Christopher Akerlind’s aptly depressing set has changed. A dinner table is set with a brocade cloth, silver candlesticks, dome-covered plates, Champagne flutes and a bottle chilling in a restaurant-style bucket. At first this appears to be the only single-room-occupancy building in New York that offers room service. But no, Booth has been out boosting again. And one has to ask, if he’s so good at this, why doesn’t he always have nicer stuff?
But “Topdog/Underdog” is about expectations as well as choices, and a certain learned helplessness, planted in Booth and Lincoln early in life, is the third roommate.
“Topdog/Underdog,” by Suzan-Lori Parks, is at the Two River Theater Company, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through Sept. 30. Information: trtc.org or (732) 345-1400.
review by Anita Gates via nytimes.com