On Theater: Sibling rivalry takes stage in 'Topdog/Underdog'

Sibling rivalry comes in many forms, but few cases develop in such gritty desperation as that depicted in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Topdog/Underdog," now on stage at South Coast Repertory.

This grim yet often comical play, which brings to mind the brotherly hatred of Sam Shepard's "True West," plays out in an exceptionally seedy urban apartment in a nameless city where two African-American brothers live by their wits after being abandoned by both parents in their youth.

Director Seret Scott, who brought SCR audiences the estimable "Fences" two seasons ago, fashions this compelling project with a pair of powerful actors at the top of their form — Curtis McClarin as the older sibling and Larry Bates as the younger. Together, they make do in the big city, but are each wary of the other.

Parks dubbed their characters Booth and Lincoln, a joke by their now-absent father, and indeed Lincoln (McClarin) scratches out a living by impersonating the 16th president in an arcade where visitors get to "assassinate" him.

The younger brother, Bates, a more sinister and edgy personality, hustles the gullible folks on the street with what he calls three-card monte but is actually a playing-card version of the old shell game. It's a practice he learned — but not completely — from his big brother, an expert in the craft now out of the action.

Bates' Booth (he prefers the nickname Three-Card) is the more volatile of the pair, a self-styled ladies' man who prepares a candlelight dinner for a female guest who never shows up. When not fantasizing about romantic conquests or "boosting" food and clothing from nearby stores, he attempts to convince Lincoln to join him in his street hustles. He also carries a pistol, which raises the stakes of the drama.

McClarin, as the older brother, projects the maturity born of experience. Also unlucky in love, he clings to his source of meager income, ever fearful of being replaced by a wax dummy. He's also a master of the card game, as he demonstrates at his brother's urging.

Both actors deliver brilliant interpretations; Bates chafing in his meager circumstances and McClarin striving to rise above his — he sleeps on a recliner in his brother's shabby, one-bed apartment. Each strives to improve his lot, but neither really possesses the skill or ambition to do so.

The drama plays out in the seediest setting imaginable — Shaun Motley's cramped but captivating rental room, which all but reeks of desperation. Soojin Lee's costumes and Jaymi Smith's lighting designs also enhance the futility of the situation.

Few plays project the human spirit quite so skillfully as "Topdog/Underdog," and the actors propelling the drama at South Coast Repertory create a truly memorable experience.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Topdog/Underdog"

Where: Julian Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Jan. 29

Cost: $20 to $68

Call: (714) 708-5555

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