By Kimberly Rau
Gamm opened its 2023-24 season with Topdog/Underdog, setting the bar very high for the rest of the year with Suzan-Lori Parks’ powerful two-man show.
Directed by Cliff Odle, Topdog/Underdog is every age-old myth of brother turned against brother, bluntly set before the audience in a contemporary age. Ancient Egypt/Rome/Land of Nod becomes a modern American city, and Sett and Osiris/Romulus and Remus/Cain and Abel turn into Lincoln and Booth, brothers so named after their alcoholic father’s idea of a joke.
And what is our poorly fated fraternal pair doing in this dystopia? Booth, the younger, is holed up in his squalid apartment attempting to get slick enough at three-card monte to make his fortune. Meanwhile, firstborn Lincoln is out working as an actor in an arcade, and sleeping in a folding chair on Booth’s floor. As both brothers discuss their neglectful upbringing and bare family secrets, they also grapple with the worst parts of themselves, trauma bonding with each other even as they chafe against the other’s existence.
It’s a play in two acts, and the scenes move so fast you’ll get whiplash trying to process the brothers’ emotions. Parks provides the groundwork for some truly exceptional, complex characters, and Anthony T. Goss (Lincoln) and Marc Pierre (Booth) under Odle’s direction more than meet the challenge.
Lincoln and Booth are brothers, but couldn’t be more different. Booth wants fame, money, every grandiose accolade the world can offer. Lincoln has had his brush with greatness and moved away from it, settling for a job where he doesn’t have to think too much. He doesn’t like conflict; he gives up most of his paycheck without a struggle, then, when Booth asks for more, barely hesitates before handing it over.
Throughout the show, Pierre and Goss keep the energy high. Pierre’s Booth is frenetic, leaping from one emotional extreme to the other, taking his brother’s paycheck in one breath and berating him for his lack of sexual ability in the other. He reveres his (possibly mythical) girlfriend until he doesn’t, he’s confident in his card abilities until he’s not, and somehow, nothing is ever actually his fault. And yet, we’re still (slightly) sympathetic to this clearly broken person, a man who justifies his parents’ abandonment of the brothers by saying at least they were “grown” when they left. They were 11 and 16.
Goss’ Lincoln is more cautious, more subdued. Lincoln is a man who has been burned by notoriety before. He’s lost friends, a wife. His “sit-down job” is taking advantage of him, but he’s scared to return to the card hustling world he left. Goss gives us a person who is trying to keep his head above water and turn things around for the better, or, at least, keep them stable. But Booth is well aware his older brother is the more talented of the two, and he’s not going to let Lincoln forget what a failure he turned out to be anyway.
Both Pierre and Goss are fabulous actors. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with. This is Goss’ Gamm debut, and hopefully, we’ll get to see more of him. Pierre, who was previously excellent in Gamm’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, An Octoroon and Gloria, has another role to be proud of here.
This is not an upbeat, easy show, and it will take you awhile to process what’s going on. You won’t get time in between the scenes, either. The transitions are conducted with some truly disorienting lighting effects (designed by Hunter Spoede) that take up all your focus. You enter the next scene as off-kilter as the brothers, which is just the way it should be. The play is happening to you, just as life is happening to Lincoln and Booth, and you’re along for the ride.
Is it a spoiler to point out that these brothers aren’t named after a pair of men that enjoyed a particularly happy ending? But the end of the show will still rock you to your core. It’s almost harder when you know what must happen.
This is a strong show that proves Gamm isn’t afraid to take risks with their productions, and it’s a gamble that pays off. Start your theater season off right and catch this production before it closes.“Topdog/Underdog” runs through Oct. 1, 2023, at The Gamm Theatre, Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at gammtheatre.org or by calling 401.723.4266.