NEW YORK — Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” is a phenomenal two-brother drama, every bit as intense and rich as anything by Sam Shepard and, frankly, as good an American play as most anything written during the last quarter century. And on Broadway, the director Kenny Leon has put this 2001 masterpiece back on a fresh, vital pedestal.
The experience at the Golden Theatre as Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins smash each other into psychological pieces is at once retro and prescient. When you can pull yourself out of the narrative action, which is not easy to do here, you realize that Parks was anticipating all kinds of stuff that was about to happen in America.
I’ve seen “Topdog/Underdog” many times before, including, some 15 years ago, a fabulously daring Chicago pairing with Shepard’s similar “True West” wherein a pair of white actors swapped roles, night-by-night, with a pair of Black actors. There’s something few would have the guts to do now, even though Parks’ characters do not have to be race-specific, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has said several times.
But what makes Leon’s new staging notable is how he resists the temptation to bog down his production with the symbolism of Abraham Lincoln mythology, and any other such arcane academia, and focuses instead on making sure we believe that these vulnerable brothers truly exist, right there in the here and now of the United States of America, as Parks describes her physical and temporal settings. Leon threads a clever needle there: the visual and aural impact of Arnulfo Maldonado’s plushly bordered setting and Justin Ellington’s fused sound design are rooted in the play’s millennial era. But nothing here feels old.
The symbolism here often tempts directors of this work to move in the wrong direction. One brother, played by Hawkins, is named Lincoln and he has a job where he paints his face, attaches a hat and beard and impersonates the iconic president in a live-action arcade shooting game: his Abe pretends to watch a play while tourists pretend to shoot him. There is, though, the specter of a kind of pre-digital downsizing: Lincoln worries that his employer might replace him with a dummy Lincoln that does not require an hourly wage.
Booth (Abdul-Mateen II), meanwhile, is Lincoln’s younger brother, at once festering with rage from the pair’s dysfunctional parents, who have abandoned their progeny with such a lack of resources that their entire lives have been street hustles in order to survive. Their father thought it would be funny to name the two boys this way before walking out the door; the boys’ subsequent lives were not exactly filled with laughs, America requiring two young Black men to always be on the lookout for the nation’s big con.
The emotional oomph in this play comes from the brothers’ desperate attempts to find normalcy: to hold down a job, to put on a romantic show for a girl who never arrives, to find a way to care for each other, even though they were taught from birth that familial affection is as phony as the antics of a Three Card Monte shark on the streets of New York. Their shared experience means they can’t quit each other, but they also have one main locus for their frustration.
And thus you’re kept on a knife edge, pulling for both brothers to make it though the show. Parks makes it abundantly clear that we are indeed watching a presentation, but we still stay terrified that the decks are so stacked against these Americans that the fate of their historical predecessors awaits them both.
Both of these actors show you all of that, shifting, sharply and painfully, with the moods of their characters, fighting with each other for happiness without realizing their fates are as intertwined as with a presidential assassin and his victim.
The play makes a gigantic shift toward crisis in Act 2 and, at the performance I saw, Abdul-Mateen didn’t fully chart the magnitude of that change. But that’s a minor criticism of a beautifully vulnerable performance that seems totally to understand what it feels like to be a younger brother.
And Hawkins is nothing short of spectacular: he shows us a vessel that seems assured, self-contained and pragmatic, but actually has wounds as deep as those of a nation.
All in all, this is really a show about how much we all need love, and to be loved. By our family, our friends and our country.
At the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York; topdogunderdog.com
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.