From 1991 to 2001, every Pulitzer Prize for drama went to a white playwright. They were a mixed bunch: young and old, Jewish and Christian, gay and straight, famous and obscure. But for a solid decade, every winner had pale skin and every play featured Caucasoid characters.
Then Suzan-Lori Parks came along with Topdog/Underdog, a surreal two-man drama about two African-American brothers hustling cards in their dumpy apartment. When she won the Pulitzer in 2002, Parks not only broke the streak -- she became an overnight sensation. Today, Parks is hailed as one of the greatest, most inventive living playwrights.
Small wonder that New Horizon Theater has finally produced Topdog/Underdog, now at the Grey Box, in Lawrenceville. The play is more than a tragedy about sibling rivalry and abandonment; Booth and Lincoln are meaty and sophisticated roles, and they're deeply coveted. Like True West for whites, Topdog has become a "showcase" play for black male actors. If you can star in Topdog, you can do pretty much anything.
Here, the men of the hour are Anton Floyd and Quester Hannah. They are charismatic and physical actors, deftly moving about their tiny stage and reaping big laughs with subtle gestures. Though they look nothing alike, Floyd and Hannah play convincing brothers; they show deep affection and cruelty, flattering and backstabbing each other with callous ease. Topdog spans nearly three hours, and the two actors have no respite; not even Booth's much lauded girlfriend makes a cameo. It's just them, on stage, talking. Even the brothers of True West share the limelight with other characters.
If you've never seen Topdog, New Horizon's production is an agreeable introduction. Herb Newsome has directed a capable low-budget production. Still, Hannah and Floyd often seem overwhelmed by their enormous task; their pacing slows and they stutter through stretches of dialogue, bruising otherwise great moments. Hannah and Floyd look weary at points, and it's clear which passages they enjoy the most.
Their saving grace is the card game itself. Card hustlers are the acrobats of the sidewalk, and it's not easy to impersonate their high-energy shtick. Floyd and Hannah have clearly practiced and drilled their card-flipping routine, and during their sharking scenes they talk as quickly and confidently as auctioneers. In the claustrophobic world of Booth and Lincoln, the cards aren't just gambling tools; they tell fortunes. And despite some weak hands, Hannah and Floyd play their cards well.
Topdog/Underdog continues through Nov. 22. The Grey Box, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-431-0773 or firstname.lastname@example.org