Booth, the younger of two brothers in Suzan-Lori Parks' cauterizing play “Topdog/Underdog,” being given a trenchant Baltimore premiere by Everyman Theatre, is determined to perfect the old con game, three-card monte.
As he rehearses his spiel before an imaginary audience of potential marks, Booth spouts a rapid-fire mantra, “You pick that card, you pick a loser.”
His hands never really move quite fast enough, smooth enough, but that doesn't deter him — he's already decided to change his name to “3-Card” — or dent his contempt for all those supposed losers who will soon lay in his path.
The only loser Booth doesn't notice, of course, is the one shuffling, slapping and sliding the cards.
The prospect of losing, in many different ways, hovers over the two-character “Topdog/Underdog” from the moment the action begins in Booth's crummy, bathroom-less apartment, which he has agreed to share, temporarily, with his older brother.
That brother's entrance is quite the ground-shifter. The sight of an African-American man in white face dressed as Abraham Lincoln, top hat, beard and all, manages to be at once startling, pathetic and kind of funny. There are two punch lines behind this image, each with a serrated edge.
The first jolt is that the man in the Lincoln outfit was actually named for the slain president, and his brother for the assassin — their father's “idea of a joke,” Lincoln tells Booth.
Secondly, down-on-his-luck Lincoln has landed a job imitating the original Lincoln in a tacky arcade shooting booth, where he gets “shot” by customers daily. (Parks borrowed this surreal, richly symbolic scenario from her own earlier work, “The America Play,” and gave it a new angle.)
Once past these strange twists, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” becomes a study in something far more normal — a struggle that is as old as the story of Cain and Abel.
Turns out that Lincoln once reigned on the streets as a three-card monte shark, but gave it up when things turned scary. Booth envies his brother's flair for the scam and wants to be shown the ropes (the younger brother has no such need for fine-honing when it comes to “boosting” — shoplifting).
The jealousy factor simmers continually underneath the play, adding to tensions already complicated by a troubled upbringing (the brothers were coldly abandoned by their parents) and hapless relationships with women (Booth's sometime girlfriend is named Grace, as in “fall from”).
The playwright's unblinking portrait of lives without rudders makes for disturbing theater, told in raw language and spiced with wicked wit. If the denouement is not entirely surprising — a gun is flashed early and often — Parks gets there in imaginative, incisive, empathetic fashion.
Along the way, she finds more and more angles to view these two men, who thrust and parry, share and covet, soften and bristle. Everyman seizes on this volatility to give “Topdog/Underdog” a taut, edgy staging directed by Jennifer L. Nelson and featuring a multidimensional cast.
The lanky Eric Berryman, whose spring-loaded moves achieve a kind of balletic force, makes a telling Booth. The talk pours out in great bursts of misplaced confidence. And Berryman handles the most vivid scenes, such as the droll disrobing that reveals the massive haul of stuff lifted from a department store, in disarming style.
KenYatta Rogers deftly conveys Lincoln's cynicism, deep frustration and damaged ego in a performance brimming with vocal and physical power. Like his colleague, Rogers burrows into the role so astutely that he makes even the craziest moments seem somehow natural and inevitable.
James Fouchard's scenic design is alive with atmosphere. When arcade-style lighting materializes around the edges of the set, the effect is striking, suggesting how both brothers have become trapped inside an amusement park with a single, fatal attraction.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun