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Top Dog/Underdog ~ WSC Avant Bard ~ Gunston Arts Center Theatre Two

Jordan Wright
March 23, 2019 

Playwright Suzan-Lori ParksTop Dog/Underdog is a tale as old as Cain and Abel.  Two brothers, abandoned as children by their parents, find cold comfort in fraternal discord.  The mean streets of New York City provide the setting.  Their names provide a clue to the irony that defines their lives.  Booth and Lincoln.  Lincoln, the elder, works in a rinky-dink arcade where, in top hat and frock coat as the former president, his days are filled with a crush of tourists who fake-assassinate him for a small fee.  He is black, so there’s that ironic twist, though he’s grateful for the steady employment after living the fraught life of a hustler grifting tourists with the shady confidence game of Three-card Monte.

Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

The problem is Lincoln was good at it.  Very good.  And his dissolute brother wants him as a partner in the easy money game while also teaching him the tricks of the trade.  “Schemin’ and dreamin’,” Booth calls it.  For a time, they reminisce about the old days when they were flush from hustling or stealing and the streets were filled with “marks” out on the town with a pocketful of cash.  But Lincoln’s refusal to return to a life of crime causes constant friction between the two men, and Booth threatens to throw him out if he won’t buddy up.  The men are constantly scamming each other like the hustlers, lookouts, shills and ‘sticks’ from Lincoln’s old gang.

Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln) and Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

Their lives are base, their language baser, yet their bickering and challenging one another make for some of the most viscerally powerful theater.  Set Designer Nephelle Andonyadis gives us the perfect witness box to view the intensity.  Rows of seats are situated on two sides of a long stage mimicking the railroad flats so popular in early city buildings.  Walls are papered with cardboard and egg cartons creating an environment that the audience experiences immediately upon entering.

Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln) and Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

The acting is astonishing.  Both Louis E. Davis (Booth) and Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln), who reminds this reviewer of a young Sidney Poitier, turn out some of the most tremendous performances I have ever seen in a two-hander.  As a side note, Hunter got the role one week before opening night, when the cast member dropped out. We just saw him in MetroStage’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.  

In the more than capable hands of Director DeMone Seraphin this provocative drama stuns at every turn.

Gripping, exhilarating and brilliantly acted, it will leave you breathless.  Highly recommended.

Krysta Hibbard, Associate Director; Costumes by Danielle Harrow; Lighting and Projections by John D. Alexander; Composer and Sound Design by e’Marcus Harper-Short; and Fight Director Casey Kaleba. 

Performance schedule – Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm matinee – through April 14th at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information visit www.AvantBard.org/tickets or call 703 418.4808.

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