Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Dog/Underdog, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Robert Grant III as Lincoln and Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth)

It’s such an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to believe the National Rifle Association hasn’t yet sponsored it: a shooting gallery where people can recreate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the None Too Fragile Theater, that bizarre bit of interactive amusement is at the core of this two-brother drama. The African-American bros, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are frozen in a world composed of lies and dreams.

And this production, directed by Sean Derry, generates laughs even as you see the two men sinking under the weight of their own misperceptions.

Lincoln spends his days working at playing Honest Abe, in a stovepipe hat and whiteface, while customers plug him with their fake guns. Lincoln (the man, not the President) used to be a master of the three-card monte street hustle, but now his brother Booth wants that gig. Trouble is, Booth is a better common thief than he is a card trickster, and he wants Lincoln to show him the three-card monte ropes.

Confined in Booth’s small, no-efficiency apartment (sans bathroom or running water) the confrontationally-named siblings chafe against each other in frequently comical ways. But there is always a current of anger and resentment beneath their actions, the familial source of which is brought out in Act Two.

Although Parks' script (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is long and repetitive, the two excellent actors on stage often make it sing believably. Brian Kenneth Armour moves slow and easy, but each of his movements is laden with intent. So the audience quickly learns to fear what might happen when he gets too agitated.

As Lincoln, Robert Grant III is an endearing fellow, wearing his scraggly fake beard and honestly trying to improve his performance so he can keep his “job with benefits.” But when he shows his brother some real card shuffling skills, Booth realizes his dream of mastering that con game, like his dream of reuniting with his girlfriend Grace, is totally illusory.

Together, Grant and Armour spin a web of iron that leaves neither any escape. And even though there are long stretches when the pace could be picked up a bit, the performers keep you riveted until the inevitable but shocking conclusion.

Sure, this play could be done in a shorter time than this production’s almost three-hour run time with one intermission. But then, you’d spend less time in the company of these two magnificently flawed and doomed characters. And that would be a shame.

Top Dog/Underdog
Through November 29 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com, 330-671-4563.

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