Theatre Review: ‘Topdog/Underdog’ at Round House Theatre

Posted By: Katie Barnetton: June 06, 2024 for MD Theatre Guide

Yao Dogbe (Booth) and Ro Boddie (Lincoln) in “Topdog_Underdog” at Round House Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman Photography.

Are you watching closely? Go see “Topdog/Underdog” at Round House Theatre, and you better. From Chekhov’s gun to sleight of hand, the fates and actions of the characters turn on a dime—make that a card. Written by award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jamil Jude, “Topdog/Underdog” (2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner and 2023 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play) lives on the edge of a knife while questioning every aspect of society, history, and the individual.

I would see this play again just for the synergy of these actors…perfect pacing, lyrical delivery, and impressive emotional range.

The work is a two-man show about the lives of brothers Lincoln (Ro Boddie) and Booth (Yao Dogbe). I won’t reveal how the brother’s got their names, but they (and you) are certainly left to make sense of the joke. From the outset, Parks leaves audiences wondering which brother is on top. Booth opens the show practicing street hustling moves in his flat. While his skills are electric, his bookshelf is made from milk cartons. Lincoln enters and collapses into a recliner, still dressed in top hat and tails from his sit-down job. What seems like a classic responsible older brother/struggling younger brother scenario quickly flips when Booth reveals that Lincoln is the one couch surfing. Yet, even as Lincoln tries to forget his ex-wife Cookie, Booth can’t quite get a ring on his elusive love, Grace.

The rest of the show doesn’t get clearer, and ambiguity is where Park’s genius resides. Just like Three-Card Monte (Booth’s chosen hustle), it seems impossible to track exactly what game hand the brothers are playing. David and Jonathan? Jacob and Esau? Are the shared stories, secret handshakes, and condom recommendations just that, or is there something more sinister going on? What is clear is each brother’s struggle to understand himself, what went wrong, and how to reclaim space in the world.

The backdrop for this were the play’s many costume changes. In Act 1, pilfered suits, street clothes, jackets, hats, and shoes came on and off as frequently as the characters questioned themselves. Act 2 formed a direct contrast as each brother settled into an outfit and attempted to live out his answers. The importance of names/name changes was referenced throughout. Booth considered changing his name to “Three Card” and Lincoln/Linc often pulled at the irony of his job position as “Honest Abe.” Careers and career changes were also major topics of discussion. Booth repeatedly tried to convince Lincoln to join him as hustle partner, while Lincoln gritted his teeth over the injustices he endures to keep his job with benefits. While these turns of thought were interesting on their own, their true intrigue was what they revealed about each character’s struggles and identity.

Park’s plays are known for repetition and revisions, and these abounded in “Topdog/Underdog.” Dualities, such as dressing and undressing, history and modernity, older brother and younger brother, Cookie and Grace, Mom and Dad, saving or squandering, hustling or honest living, and who looks out for whom filled and modulated through the dialogue. When their development was over, “life’s deep questions” popped out of this mix. The only book that Booth possessed was his family photo album, and both brothers looked through it as frequently as they could. They constantly questioned why their parents left each other, why their parents left them, and why their parents showed them things they could not unsee. Of course, all of this resolved in the play’s rousing conclusion whether the audience felt ready for it or not.

One aspect of the play that is not in question is the jaw-dropping talent of Boddie and Dogbe. I would see this play again just for the synergy of these actors. Boddie and Dogbe kept the entire show running at hot barrel through their perfect pacing, lyrical delivery, and impressive emotional range. Amidst all of the fast-changing dynamics, Boddie and Dogbe managed to keep their motivations even hidden from themselves. They also let humor and love shine through in what is primarily a dark play. I could often see the little boy brothers within the grown men. This duo is theatrical excellence at its best, and the standing ovation they received was well deserved.

Also impressive was each actor’s prowess in portraying card hustling. I congratulate the work of card manipulation consultant, Ryan Phillips, for help making their movements mesmerizing. The click of the cards combined with winning words and smooth moves made it easy to understand why passersby would be drawn to the scam.

The production crew did an amazing job creating a world for the story to occur. Set designer Meghan Raham provided a physical space to match the brother’s emotional landscape. Rickety furniture, disheveled wallpaper, and the crumpled pile of Booth’s books showed the threadbare state of the brothers’ lives and hopes. Act 2 provided a brief attempt at covering these realities, but nothing could drown the ever-present glow of the blood-red neon signs outside of Booth’s windows.

Designer Danielle Preston’s costumes were carefully chosen and fitting to the part (vitally important when clothing is a major motif), down to the the level of detail with the price tags on the filched suits. Lighting designer Xavier Pierce was always right on cue, creating evenings, mornings, and afternoons when called for, and pulling forth just the right hue from the blood-red lights. Fight choreographer Casey Kaleba’s skills shone where they should.

Thanks to sound designer Nick Hernandez, the play’s indirections were given one more avenue of travel. The play included one guitar solo, but its primary score was the background noises of Booth’s apartment complex. Street traffic, barking dogs, sirens, and radios were all heard at various points, audiences had to listen closely to recognize that the crying baby may have been on Booth’s side of the wall.

Genuine laughter or insidious intent? Thanks to Round House Theatres’ excellent work, you’ll need to see “Topdog/Underdog” to decide. If you watch closely, you just might just come away with a better understanding of your own life choices and who you want to be when you’re alone. Park wants us to win, after all.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Advisory: Contains a simulated gunshot, adult language, depictions of violence, sexual references, and mature themes.

“Topdog/Underdog” EXTENDED through June 30, 2024 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.