Review | ‘Topdog/Underdog’ scores a winning hand

A scene from “TopDog/UnderDog”
Photo: Marc J. Franklin

“I am a brother playing Lincoln. It’s a stretch for anyone’s imagination,” explains an early-middle-aged Black male who makes a living impersonating Abraham Lincoln (with a suit, beard, top hat, and whiteface makeup) as part of a bizarre arcade attraction where patrons can reenact Lincoln’s assassination in “Topdog/Underdog,” Suzan-Lori Parks’ gritty, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama of sibling rivalry, which is now receiving an excellent 20th anniversary Broadway revival starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Corey Hawkins (“In the Heights”).

Back in college, I was assigned to read “The America Play,” an earlier, experimental work by Parks about a Black gravedigger who worked as a Lincoln impersonator, which later became the inspiration for “Topdog/Underdog.” While “The America Play” can be hard to understand or appreciate, “Topdog/Underdog” is undoubtedly Parks’ most direct and accessible work – even as it is multilayered, disturbing, psychologically probing, and burning in intensity.

It is set in a squalid SRO apartment inhabited by younger brother Booth (Abdul-Mateen) and older brother Lincoln (Hawkins). According to Lincoln, their names were their father’s “idea of a joke.” Both of their parents deserted them while they were still children. More recently, Lincoln’s wife and Booth’s girlfriend have left.

Fearing that he is about to lose his job and be replaced by a wax dummy, Lincoln is forced to consider returning to hustling Three-Card Monte on the street, a practice he exceled in but gave up following the murder of his old partner. Booth is eager to take up Three-Card Monte himself but appears to lack Lincoln’s skill.

Director Kenny Leon (“A Soldier’s Play,” “A Raisin in the Sun”) uses an intriguing but overdone visual concept, in which the apartment is framed around an ancient-looking gold curtain, which remains in view throughout the production and may have been intended to evoke Ford’s Theatre, the site of Lincoln’s assassination, and the sense that the brothers are on display for us. Set changes are accompanied by dancing lights and special effects that make the set look as if it is pulsating in synch with the beat of loud hip-hop music.

Regardless, the production excels in the sharp and textured interplay between Abdul-Mateen (restless, longing, cocky, hurt) and Hawkins (weathered, mature, guilty, smooth), in which comedy-laced routines eventually culminate in showdown and tragedy.

Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., topdogunderdog.com. Through Jan. 15.