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Link and younger brother Booth have virtuoso hands. To hear him tell it, Link was “the Stink,” the “be all end all,” best three-card monte hustler in town. He could “throw” the cards — two hearts, a deuce of spades — and leapfrog them over each other so fast his mark’d get mystified and never pick the deuce. And Booth? He has few rivals as a “booster.” Give him a thick overcoat. Put him in a classy store. Game over. When he steals, Booth says, he steals “generously.” Though how he swiped that ornate, three-panel folding screen would boggle even the gullible.

The African-American brothers are the Tiger Woodses of their respective crafts. But they have street skills, neither of which translates into what Link wants: a legal, “sit-down job with benefits.” To reach that status, in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Top Dog/Underdog, Link works at an arcade playing his namesake, Abraham Lincoln. He sits, as if at the Ford’s Theatre, and people pay to assassinate him with a cap pistol.

There are probably several, but it’s hard to think of a more demeaning job: a black man dresses as the freer of the slaves — beard, stovepipe hat, whiteface — and racists gun him down. But typical of Parks’s writing, she doesn’t comment. Doesn’t need to. And the job is part of a much larger texture that resonates like a gong.

Parks does permit herself the occasional potshot, as when Link says people want history “to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

The play’s title could refer to Fritz Perls’s “top dog/underdog” theory. The Gestalt therapist believed that when a person represses a potential characteristic, it will sabotage the one that displaced it. The “top dog” (i.e., the dominant one, a bit like Freud’s superego) makes demands, takes charge, judges; while the repressed “underdog” uses evasive means — passivity, helplessness — to defeat its “master.”

“Shoulds” are an example: top dog says, “You should do this” (or even “If you don’t, life will cease”); underdog replies, “Sure, someday; right now I’m busy.” The two parts aren’t separate, Perls argued, but sides of the same coin (Mighty Mouse has Mickey Mouse within him and vice versa, a commentator said). The goal: acknowledge their combined existence.

Parks calls Link the “top dog” and Booth the “underdog.” The names, Lincoln and Booth — a joke their father played before he abandoned them — define their relation with each other. Lincoln tries to renounce his past (and urges his brother to do the same), and Booth wants to develop a more marketable street skill, throwing cards. Parks suggests that the world Lincoln tries to join is a con game between the Players and the Played. And if the brothers abandon their “underdog” crafts, “there ain’t no winning.”

It’s fairly easy to schematize Top Dog/Underdog, but the play, and the UCSD production that had too brief a run last week, resist categorization. Parks interweaves everything with rhythms that also reflect the theme. The play won the Pulitzer for 2002, and it moves in patterns of shock and awe — or shock and entertain. Shocks come fast: a lost job, yet another betrayal, a flashing handgun; the entertainment, dazzling set pieces.

I wish everyone who loves theater could have seen Johnny Gill’s tour de force at the top of scene two. Up to this point, his Booth’s been just a trash-talking wannabe three-card thrower (“You living in the Third World, fool,” older brother Lincoln says). Booth enters in a thick black overcoat, shivering from the cold, humming a song. Then, like a magician with rabbits, he pulls a brand-new shoe from a sleeve; then its partner. Then another pair. Two belts slither out like snakes. Still humming, Gill chucks the coat and reveals a handsome suit. Off goes the jacket, then the pants, and he’s wearing another suit. He produces two folded shirts and neckties. Once you’re convinced Booth’s a genius, he ups the ante. He exits and brings back that folding screen. Part of the play turns on metaphors of changing clothes/changing identities, but Booth’s shoplifter-striptease makes the point unforgettably.

Johnny Gill and Bowman Wright made the play not about metaphors, or a clinical study in self-deconstructing superegos, but about brothers, at once best friends and worst enemies, who can’t go on without first going through each other. Gill’s Booth was an artful dodger who wore his dreams on — and, during scene two, in — his sleeve. He spoke with such assurance it was hard to tell fact from myth.

Compared to Gill’s spontaneity, Wright’s Link at first seemed sluggish. He just slumped in his chair, sipped bourbon “medicine,” and spoke as if someone edited his words. But when Link got back in touch with his art, Wright made a 180 degree jolt and became suddenly unrepressed and fully alive.

The playwright wants different kinds of pauses, from breathers to full and lengthy stops. Director Nadine George-Graves honored them so much that the pace often lagged. But she and her actors filled the brothers’ sibling rivalry with stark emotional truth. At various points Link and Booth would flip-flop, from top to under, in themselves and with each other: two coins with two spinning sides, and in the end a sudden, fatal tailspin.

Top Dog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks
Arthur Wagner Theatre, UCSD, La Jolla
Directed by Nadine George-Graves; cast: Johnny Gill, Bowman Wright; scenic and costume design, Christine Crook; lighting, Sarah Cogan; sound, David Corsello
Run concluded.

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