Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
April 27, 2012
You know the drill: Throw a few disparate people together in close quarters and sparks will fly. Whether strangers or relatives, in a comedy or a drama, the result is the same. In other words, watch out for conflagrations and revelations.
It doesn’t get more intensely dramatic than in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “ Topdog /Underdog.” Two brothers, forced by dire financial circumstances to share a tiny, dingy apartment, continue their lifelong game of one- upsmanship . It’s all about games here, whether cat and mouse, “Can you top this ?, ” “Gotcha!,” or Three Card Monte.
This African American Cain and Abel sport unfortunate names: Lincoln and Booth. Linc used to be the card-shark king of the streets. But after one of his cohorts was killed, he’s sworn off the con. But that soon changes, in deadly ways. Meanwhile, as Booth steals everything they need to survive and look sharp, Linc tries to go straight, taking a regular job, though it’s admittedly an odd one; he works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, in whiteface, sitting in a simulated theater so visitors can shoot him, and he can die for their amusement.
Back at home, as the tension escalates and the relationship deteriorates, family secrets are revealed, though the brothers never quite figure out why, in rapid succession, both their parents abandoned them. The competition and desperation build in this deconstruction of the American Dream, and the ending is a shocker.
Three years ago, UCSD mounted a dazzling production of the play. But with these somewhat older actors at ion theatre, this tale of emptiness and loss is even more desperate and disturbing. Under the superb direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Laurence Brown and Mark Christopher Lawrence are terrific. From the nimble handling of the cards, to the comical, competitive and dramatic acts, these are two exquisite performances.
The ensemble is excellent at Lamb’s Players Theatre, too, but the material they have to work with is a lot less satisfying. Though billed as a comedy, Janece Shaffer’s “Brownie Points” aspires to something deeper. But despite its head-on confrontation of race, class and religion, it has the distinct whiff of sitcom. Five moms in a cabin in the woods, Brownie daughters camping outside. The highest-class, most educated one, a black surgeon, accuses another of being a racist. We learn that every one of these women has a cross to bear, though single parenthood, minority religion and skin color are not really comparable. The message is heavy-handed, there’s too much yelling, but the set, lighting and sound design are outstanding.
Race relations figure prominently in both these plays, so save some time for post-performance dialogue.
“ Topdog /Underdog” runs through May 12 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.
“Brownie Points” continues through May 27 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
©2012 PAT LAUNER