September 2001
Special Summer Theatre Review : Top Dog/ Underdog

Reviewed by Wilson Morales

Special Summer Theatre Review : Top Dog/ Underdog

Theatre:Joseph Papp Public Theatre
Opening Date:July 26, 2001
Written By:Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed By:George C. Wolfe
Cast:Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright
Running Time:2 hours, 10 minutes
Ticket Prices:$45 all seats

In the film business, the names of certain actors in a film would get our attention. It doesn’t matter if the film is good or bad, we would be there to see it. Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro, and Angela Bassett are a few that command that much attention. When the combined skills of two actors are brought together in a film or stage, the result is electrifying. Last year in the theatre industry, the joint skills of actors Phillip Seymore Hoffman and John C. Reilly playing brothers in “True West” had audiences coming back for seconds. A year later with the script flipped differently, Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright are igniting the mixed crowds with their top-notch performances as wayward brothers in Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Top Dog/Underdog.” The story is somewhat predicable but it’s the acting that you will never forget.

The setting takes place in a single room that’s shared by Lincoln (Wright) and Booth (Cheadle). Lincoln is the older one and a former card hustler. He currently earns a living dressing up as Abe Lincoln in a department store and recreating the assassination scene. Booth is a shiftless, non-working thief who relies on his brother to pay the rent. When he’s not outside stealing, he’s home practicing his card game, hoping to be successful as his brother once was. Although he silently envies Lincoln, Booth has to play chess with him in every aspect (job, money, women, etc.) to get his attention and respect. It doesn’t help that issues surrounding their parents, who abandoned them as teenagers, is still a matter not resolved. The game of life is on and neither one wants to lose.

Directed by the gifted George C. Wolfe, style is always on display. The set pieces are very showy as they serve as unspoken secondary characters. Each scene is a more energetic and dramatic as the tensions mount between the brothers. Cheadle and Wright are the poor man’s version of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. Cheadle is more vibrant with his performance as he goes on constantly trying to impress his big brother. Wright is more resigned with his manner as his character takes his life with caution. Fast/slow, high/low and any two words that are opposite of each other is probably the best way to describe “Top Dog/ Underdog.” The characters are different, but the performances are the same, magnificent.