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Top Dog/Underdog

It's a dog eat dog world

Titles, although frequently useful, rarely illuminate the content of a play. For every deeply resonant title like Long Day's Journey Into Night, there are a dozen generic Cats or The Shape of Things. Top Dog/Underdog, on the other hand, captures the spirit and action of the play perfectly. From the time when Booth (Larry Gilliard, Jr.) is joined onstage by his brother, Lincoln (Harold Perrineau), they circle each other, vying for the advantage. The give-and-take, verbal par and thrust that characterizes their relationship physically resembles the dance between two dogs preparing to fight. It can seem like they are dancing around the stage. As the story unfolds, the stakes for top billing rise; what begins as a comic situation with sitcom timing turns angrier as the audience learns more about the brutal childhood Link and Booth shared. In the constant mugging and bragging that characterizes the brother's interactions, their desperation stays on the surface.

The play opens with Booth in the center of the stage, practicing the patter of a hustler playing a three-card monte, as "It's A Man's World" plays in the background. With a piece of cardboard and two milk crates, Booth works hard at creating the illusion of confidence; he carves out a persona with meager props. When Lincoln enters, dressed as "Honest Abe" in tails, a top hat and white grease paint, Booth runs to hide his goods. As we learn from Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer-Prize winning script, Lincoln used to be genius with the three-card monte, but he gave up a life of hustling to work in an arcade playing Honest Abe. Over and over again, he gets shot. He doesn't fight; he endures, just as he endures the barbs from Booth about his sexual inaction or his refusal to get back into hustling.

Without giving too much away, since their past is central to the construction of suspense in the play, the names "Lincoln" and "Booth" do not bode well for these brothers. Although the production is at times bombastic, Harold Perrineau and Larry Gilliard, Jr. flesh out their characters with total commitment to their parts. You feel the anger and sadness mingling, and their comic timing is impeccable. Little moments stand out, like Booth readying for a date by spraying perfume in the air, then running through it. The historical ties are not overdone; the names hint at larger themes of honestly and fraud without sacrificing the emphasis on the two protagonists. The relationship between Booth and Lincoln IS the play, and the play succeeds or fails based on the truth of their bond. The most successful moments are when they are rapping about cards or women; unfortunately, the "bigger" moments, when their family history is discussed, do not add up as well.

Appropriately, the play is staged on a small scale. The room that Link and Booth share doesn't even take up the entire stage; the dingy white backdrop leaves space on both sides of the stage. The lightening is the most interesting part of the set. The entire light board is visible to the audience, hanging bare. In a few important moments, the lights change from above to below, creating fantastical shadows against the backdrop and making great use of Lincoln's Honest Abe costume. The simple staging underscores the best parts of the play. The carefully observed banter between the brothers, when the weight of their past doesn't drag the action into melodrama, along with the characters Lincoln and Booth both feel honest.

October 17 - November 16
<a href="../theatre/curran.htm">Curran Theater</a>
445 Geary St.
(between Mason &amp; Taylor)
San Francisco, CA 94102
Phone: 415.551.2000
<a href="http://www.bestofbroadway-sf.com">www.bestofbroadway-sf.com</a>;