An inescapable claustrophobia prevails in Ion Theatre’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog / Underdog. All the action in the two-hour drama unfolds in a drab, barely furnished boardinghouse room where brothers Lincoln and Booth reside. (If those names strike you as ironic, be assured it’s intentional.) Lincoln (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and Booth (Laurence Brown) are also the only characters in Parks’ play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. They’re trapped together by the fates and by the confines of the little room they share. In Ion’s black-box space, you are trapped with them. It can be mesmerizing, as when Lincoln, an old pro at Three Card Monte, shows his brother his stuff; and it can be harrowing, especially when the more volatile Booth is on the verbal offensive. But you just can’t look away.
Older brother Lincoln, desolate and ditched by his wife, Cookie, is working at an arcade where he dresses up like Honest Abe—in a stovepipe hat, beard and whiteface—and allows customers to “shoot” him for kicks. Booth is a petty thief, a smooth (or so he thinks) operator and an aspiring Monte dealer. He’s got a girlfriend, “Amazing Grace,” but we see Booth only with the girlie magazines he hides underneath the boardinghouse room’s one bed (Lincoln sleeps in a chair). Booth may consider himself Topdog to Linc’s Underdog, but in fact these two are both underdogs, and we intuit very early on that they’re both going under.
Lawrence and Brown are major presences on stage—Linc in his sad-eyed weariness, Brown in his swaggering physicality. And most of the time, Parks’ astringent dialogue is enough to keep the drama moving forward, even in such a static setting. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has crafted a mini-world of melancholy and, ultimately, mayhem. (What do you expect from a play with characters named Lincoln and Booth?)
The Lincoln / Booth metaphor is what it is, and the Pulitzer committee obviously responded to it. But the strength of Parks’ characters, and of Lawrence and Brown’s performances, is in the realization of two underdogs’ desperation, two brothers’ inexorable blood ties. In the end, you must decide whether those ties have been broken and at what cost.
Topdog / Underdog runs through May 12 at BLK- BOX @ 6th & Penn in Hillcrest.
Chicago: You know Christie Brinkley from Sport Illustrated swimsuit covers, a failed celebrity marriage and a role as a hottie in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Now you can see her as Roxie Hart in this Prohibition-era musical. Opens May 8 and runs through May 13 at the Civic Theatre, Downtown. broadwaysd.com
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940: Song, dance and murder break out in this show written by John Bishop. Through May 6 at Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
The Pride: What a difference 50 years makes in the complications and perception of a homosexual relationship. The point’s clearly made in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play, directed by Ion Theatre’s artistic director, Glenn Paris. The same four actors, each of them solid, appear in both the 1958 and 2008 sequences, which alternate over two acts. The ‘50s scenes are superior in both dramatic impact and execution. Through May 6 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
Topdog / Underdog: Ion Theatre borrows Moxie Theatre’s Delicia Turner Sonnenberg to direct this dark-comic tale of rivalry between two brothers, jokingly named Lincoln and Booth. Through May 12 at BLK BOX @ 6th & Penn in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Late Nite Catechism: The participatory solo comedy by Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan turns 20 years old this year. Through May 19 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido. welktheatersandiego.com
Stepping Out: Amateur dancers are invited to perform at a big party in this upbeat comedy. Are they up to the task? Through May 20 at Welk Resorts Theatre in Escondido. welktheatersandiego.com
Grease: You know the story: Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy pretends not to like girl. Girl pretends to be slutty to get boy back. Singing. Dancing. The ’50s. Through May 26 at OnStage Playhouse in Chula Vista. onstageplayhouse.org
Brownie Points: Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs the Southern California premiere of this new play about five women who discover themselves and each other while on a field trip with their daughters, who are never seen by the audience. Through May 27 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado. lambsplayers.org
miXtape: Generation X was torn between disillusionment and hope in this cavalcade of music from the 1980s. Produced by Lamb’s Players Theatre, it runs through May 27 at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
The Scottsboro Boys: The Scottsboro Boys were nine black kids charged with raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931, and their case was representative of racism in the criminal-justice system. The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on their story. Through June 10 at the Old Globe in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Hands on a Hardbody: A musical based on a documentary? Yep. This Playhouse-commissioned play is about 10 contestants trying to win a truck in a battle of endurance, with music by Amanda Green and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio. Through June 17 at La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Respect: A Musical Journey of Women: The evolution of women’s role in society is explored through past top-40 hits in this upbeat musical. Through June 24 at the Lyceum Stage at Horton Plaza. lyceumevents.org
Crime Pays: A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net