Topdog/Underdog At The Taper

REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is a tragicomedy that mixes satire, pungent language and in-your-face drama to tell the story of two impoverished African-American brothers, Booth (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) and Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), who are struggling to get out from under the weight of history. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the play has been successful in New York and regionally, winning the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

Parks uses the metaphor of three-card monte, the street card game, to epitomize the brothers' struggle for survival. Lincoln was a past master at the scam, capable of fleecing the suckers of nearly a thousand bucks a day. But a violent incident (seeing an accomplice gunned down by an enraged victim) caused him to quit the game for a straight job--dressing up in whiteface as Abe Lincoln in a carnival shooting gallery. Booth, the younger brother, is a wanna-be hustler, surviving meanwhile as a petty thief.

The play takes place in a dingy one-room apartment where the brothers shuck and jive, trading insults and jokes as they vie for power over each other (and over their own frailties, some of which stem from their bleak, abandoned childhood). Violence is never very far from the surface, especially with characters named Booth and Lincoln (Parks toys with this obvious symbolism in many ironic ways).

Director George C. Wolfe (who recently resigned as top dog at NYC's Public Theatre) has encouraged Gilliard and Perrineau to think of themselves as vaudeville--or even minstrel-show --performers. Their use of body language, voice inflection and comic patter is truly masterful. Their work combined with Parks' kinetic text makes for an astonishing evening. (Mark Taper Forum thru March 28), call (213) 628-2772 or visit