Theater Review: 'Topdog/Underdog' ain't no hustle at Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — There's been a lot said on our stages this summer about race relations in America; about the pursuit of the American Dream and how that dream can become nightmare for the "other" — those on the "wrong" side of color or ethnicity.

But, with the possible exception of director Robert O'Hara's treatment of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" at Williamstown, nothing has come at this subject with more pain, anguish and eloquence than Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Topdog/Underdog," which is being given a haunting, gut-wrenching production at Shakespeare & Company, under Regge Life's finely-tuned direction and with performances by Deaon  Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood that tear at your heart while pulling out the ground beneath your feet at the same time.

Parks' two-act play is set in a seedy SRO (single room occupancy) flat in New York (evocatively designed by Cristina Tedesco) that is shared by two brothers of color — Booth (Griffin-Pressley) and Lincoln (Wood), who has moved in with Booth after his wife walked out on him.

Abandoned by their mother when they were boys, life as been a matter of survival for the brothers — whose names were given to them as a joke by their long-lost father, Lincoln tells Booth — who have, each in their own way, become masters of hustle.

Booth, played by Griffin-Pressley with a cocky, edgy self-assurance that bears little relationship to the reality of his life — is a skilled shoplifter. At one point, he has boosted a whole new wardrobe, as he prepares to propose to his girlfriend, Grace.

For his part, Lincoln is trying to make the best of a life that has been hard-knock at best. He's done alcohol and drugs. He's spent his inheritance. His marriage has been a bust. His skill is the street con game, Three-Card Monte, of which he has been, a master, operating with a first-rate crew that has this con game down to an art. At this point, Lincoln has put all that behind him. He has found work painting his face white, wearing a beard, a stovepipe hat, long black jacket and matching pants and sitting in a booth in an arcade pretending to be Abraham Lincoln while customers take pot shots at him with a phony gun. While Booth refuses to use any of his inheritance and spends lonely hours masturbating into porn magazines, Lincoln is the breadwinner of the family as the two brothers live week to week on his meager salary.

But times are about to get rougher for the two brothers. There is talk of cutbacks at the arcade. Lincoln is facing the real prospect of losing his job, replaced by a dummy. He also is under pressure from Booth to jump back into the street life; to train Booth to become a master of the street hustle. Booth has gone so far as to rename himself 3-Card.

The world as Lincoln knows it, as he has experienced it, is a world apart from the world Booth inhabits. "Topdog/Underdog" opens with Booth at a makeshift table in their crammed room, working the Three-Card Monte game and patter as if he were a first-rate practiced expert. He's not. It's a con. This is Booth the way he imagines himself. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice his Three-Card Monte skills and then begins to teach him the finer points of the con, Booth looks ahead to the grander prize, all the money just waiting to be pried loose from the hands of eager, self-assured victims. Booth is always looking at the trees and from his viewpoint they are full and verdant. The forest, however, is quite something else. And, eventually, there will be a reckoning. Truth — the truth about his relationship with Grace; the truth about their father and his relationship to the two boys — eventually will come out. The consequences will not only be crushing but devastating.

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The language throughout "Topdog/Underdog" is rough, raw, unvarnished, natural, and not without its poetry. There is a current of sadness here; of hope against grim hope. All Booth and Lincoln want is a way out and a way in — a way out of the barbed wire enclosure of poverty and getting by day by day, week by week; a way in to a corner, if only a small one, of the American Dream, using the skills and talents they know best to take what they can't get — the con; the hustle. But, in "Topdog/Underdog," all life is a con, a hustle, except when it isn't.

"Dressing up like some ... dead president and letting people shoot at you sounds like a hustle to me," Booth remarks at one point.

"People know the real deal," Lincoln replies. "When people know the real deal it ain't a hustle."

This is the third two-character play Shakespeare & Company has put into its large Tina Packer Playhouse, but the first to make this normally expansive space truly compact and intimate, to the point of claustrophobia which, in this case, is potent and appropriate. This tightness of space only heightens the volatility brewing beneath the surface of a play that is tough, penetrating, unsentimental, achingly compassionate and, at the same time wickedly and incisively funny.

As Booth, Griffin-Pressley shows a range, depth and maturity that has not been as readily discernible in the Shakespeare roles he has played over the course of his now four seasons at Shakespeare & Company. His Booth is a mix of childlike and childish innocence. You can understand how this boyish affect would hold appeal within the framework of the Three-Card Monte charade. At the same time, you sense that he will never be more than a craftsman at Three-Card Monte. He is too careless, impulsive, reckless, audacious. He is his own worst enemy; taken in by his own charms as he fights to keep his own demons at bay.

Wood, an exciting young actor new to Shakespeare & Company, brings a cool, poignant, richly nuanced understanding to Lincoln. There is in Wood's Lincoln a brooding intensity that is shaped by his very real fear of what the world is really like.

Watching Wood's Lincoln demonstrate the Three-Card Monte routine to Booth is to watch an artist at work. He wants none of that life anymore, but as unemployment looms at the arcade, Lincoln is increasingly drawn to Booth's energetic efforts to seduce him back into that life with the two of them working as a team. It's the best they will ever get of the American Dream.

This is not an easy evening of theater, neither for the audience nor for Griffin-Pressley and Wood, a seamless team. Looking at these two actors in the curtain call at the performance I attended, staring out — not up, not down, not directly at us — exhausted and spent, you know the emotional toll "Topdog/Underdog" takes on them. These two masterly artists leave it all on the stage.

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