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The full monte

Topdog/Underdog confronts historic ideals and economic realities

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Watch the cards. Pick a black card, you pick a winner. Pick a red card, pick a loser. Who sees the deuce of spades? The one who sees it never fades. Watch me throw, here I go.

A young African-American man practices three-card monte in a fleabag hotel room. He shuffles the cards and rehearses his patter as if commanding a street corner in his mind's eye. Then the door swings open and the image of Abraham Lincoln stands in the way. For a moment, the Great Emancipator looks like a disappointed accuser: As president, I freed the slaves, and this is what you aspire to?

But in Topdog/Underdog, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks presents not the ghost of a dead president but a black man who works as a Lincoln impersonator. He even happens to be named "Lincoln," and "Booth" is his younger brother, the would-be card sharp. You can't quite view Topdog/Underdog as a realistic drama, but you can thrill to it from every other angle.

On the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, Topdog/Underdog presents a semi-Biblical allegory of sibling rivalry, a confrontation of African-American historical ideals and harsh economic realities, and a celebration of this country's rhetoric and street slang. Kent Gash directs a production that might be more complex than it needs to be -- actors Kes Khemnu and Joe Wilson Jr. even alternate the roles of Booth and Lincoln on successive nights. Yet with coarse comedy, credible anguish, and rushing, accumulating ideas, this dog hunts.

Lincoln (Wilson on opening night) masquerades as the 16th president for profit, not fun. At what sounds like a surreal Coney Island, he plays the role at an arcade tourist attraction, where customers pay to be John Wilkes Booth and fire at the historic head with a cap pistol. It doesn't sound like much of a draw, but for the playwright, the concept works like the proverbial grain of sand that provokes the oyster to create a pearl. Or two pearls, in Parks' case: A black Lincoln impersonator provided the central character of her earlier, more oblique script The America Play (staged by Actor's Express in 2001).

Lincoln values the work as "a sit-down job with benefits." At times it haunts him: When he describes being in costume, waiting on the small set for the customers, the Hertz's lights dim and the door swings eerily open by itself. As we envision an anonymous mass entering one by one, the play echoes a theme from Stephen Sondheim's Assassins -- implying that as part of an audience, we're complicit in a public execution.

But Lincoln clings to his job as his only viable alternative to his previous, high-risk life as a legendary three-card monte dealer. His younger brother has no occupation but shoplifting -- he begins one of Topdog/ Underdog's scenes with a kind of matter- of-fact striptease to reveal that he's wearing two full sets of clothes that he "boosted" from a big department store. Booth aspires to greater things to escape his "Third World" room and woo back his girlfriend. He tempts Lincoln to take up the cards again and bring him along as a partner.

Topdog/Underdog rings with earthy, inventive language. The play's slow, early simmer becomes a rapid boil when Lincoln teaches the tricks and theatricality of three-card monte, like the way the dealer makes a show of reluctance as a means of drawing in the easy marks. In Topdog/ Underdog, monte isn't just a hustle, it's the hustle, the embodiment of every street con or criminal activity in American life, from shoplifting to drug dealing. It's everything that a man in his prime shouldn't do, and for Lincoln, it's an addiction he can't resist. He keeps a set of old cards hidden, like his secret fix, and when he recalls his glory days, relieving tourists of their savings, his speech becomes a Whitmanesque litany of dupes and suckers.

Such an abundant play doesn't need Gash's most conspicuous frill: a literal steel cage that surrounds the stage. As a director, Gash favors distracting symbols that seize our attention (the set of his first Alliance show, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Couer, had a drastic tilt like a sinking ship). The cage makes a vivid image; it stands for the brothers' lack of freedom, it bangs resoundingly when struck, yet it puts up a barrier between the audience and the action.

We don't want anything separating us from the players, especially Wilson, who has a bantam fighter's compact athleticism and a sly, saturnine charisma even when he's most beaten-down. Next to him, Khemnu seems clownish, slower and less musical -- but all these could be Booth's own qualities. It'll be interesting to watch the actors switch and see if Khemnu can be such an electric Lincoln, and Wilson such a misguided Booth.

In Topdog/Underdog, the two brothers eventually turn on each other out of rage at their poverty, the women who disrespect them and the parents who abandoned them. Parks uses their close-quarters conflict to dramatize the demands of history, the pressures of urban life and deeper flaws in our national character. If you've worried that contemporary plays aren't vital enough, or that their language isn't rich enough, there's no need to fear. Topdog/Underdog is here.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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