Stalking the stage — and each other — with the effortless, smoldering grace of two panthers in a cage, Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle exude the kind of electric charisma in “Topdog/Underdog” that can pin you to your seat. These are actors with inventive theatrical instincts and heaps of natural talent, and their fertile performances are so captivating that it may take a while before audiences notice there’s not a lot going on in this disappointing new play by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Public Theater.
The play takes place in a single shabby room, atmospherically rendered by set designer Riccardo Hernandez and lit by Scott Zielinski, that’s populated by brothers named Lincoln (Wright) and Booth (Cheadle). Unusually for this playwright, those historically portentous monikers don’t necessarily imply any fantastical layers of meaning here: These two are recognizable denizens of the real world.
Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, they’ve scraped a living together and separately since. As the play opens, younger brother Booth is trying to master three-card monte, the scam Lincoln once specialized in and has since given up in an attempt to go legit. He’s got a nine-to-five job now in an arcade, posing as his namesake, Abraham, in an attraction that allows folks to get their kicks by playing assassin.
Much has been made of the fact that Parks, a highly regarded young playwright whose work engenders a lot of attention these days, is writing in a more naturalistic style here. The transition proves a bit awkward: She may be a playwright who is less comfortable in the real world than in the fantastical one of her imagination.
The fact is, Lincoln’s patently unbelievable line of work strains belief in the realistic context of this play. (Parks first used it in a more stylized work, “The America Play.”) Repeated references to Lincoln’s daily trials at work and fear of being replaced by a wax dummy lend the play a nagging sense of unreality that jars against the obvious attempt to capture the world as it is. (What’s next door at this peculiar arcade, anyway: Let’s Lynch Santa Claus? A Kill-Kennedy videogame?)
The rest of the details of the play are resolutely — even a bit prosaically — realistic. The seed of the drama resides in the rivalry between the brothers. Booth mocks Lincoln’s attempt to go straight and brags that he’s going to outdo him as a master of three-card monte; he also brags about his sexual prowess with girlfriend Grace and intimates that Lincoln is impotent; they drink and reminisce about their abandonment, separately, by their father and mother, and the $500 “inheritances” left them.
Parks’ dialogue has a sharp vernacular verve that’s entertaining in itself. She has created distinct voices for these characters that are fresh and funny and infused with real gritty lyricism; for a while, just watching Wright and Cheadle dig into the torrents of words is a heady experience, with Wright in particular using his resonant baritone like a master musician.
With director George C. Wolfe displaying his typical showmanship and style, they also bring a sort of vaudevillean energy and style to some of the livelier physical set pieces. Among these are Cheadle’s dance of disrobement, as he takes off two complete layers of clothes he’s “boosted” from a store, and a sort of impromptu Southern song routine celebrating Lincoln’s payday.
Unfortunately, not much real drama emerges from beneath the words and the lively byplay between the two actors. Booth is stood up on a date with Grace for which he’s prepared lavishly. Lincoln gets fired and falls back on his three-card monte skills — but tries to hide it from Booth, resulting in a final, violent confrontation.
But we get little sense that the events of both past and present have a powerful emotional hold on the characters. The dialogue is too diffuse, and it doesn’t reveal any depths of feeling in the characters. As a result, the final, violent climax seems a contrivance — an ironical nod to some sort of historical inevitability, not a tragedy arising from a man’s losing battle against his demons and his circumstances.
“Topdog/Underdog” is stylish and intriguing on the surface, but when it’s over you may feel like one of the “marks” in a corner card game: out of luck.