Two decades ago, Suzan-Lori Parks exploded into the theater stratosphere with her breakout play “Topdog/Underdog,” a two-hander about a pair of brothers grappling with the troubled, precarious state of being African American men in an unnamed city that affords them no advantages. The drama, which drew memorable performances from Jeffrey Wright and Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def), became a genuine phenomenon that earned Parks a Pulitzer Prize.
Now the show is back on Broadway, opening Thursday at the Golden Theatre, where director Kenny Leon has orchestrated two riveting performances from young stars best known for their onscreen work: Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton”) plays the older brother, Lincoln, a former street hustler with a demeaning and dead-end job as an Abe Lincoln impersonator in whiteface; while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (“Watchmen”) is younger brother Booth, an unemployed man who gets by shoplifting his basic needs while yearning for his brother’s abandoned skills at three-card monte to make some real money.
Theirs is a fraternal relationship that ebbs and flows between admiration, affection and bitter jealousy in ways that are every bit as complex and realistic as Cain and Abel — or the mismatched siblings Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard’s 1980 Pulitzer winner “True West.” And Leon’s production very much emphasizes the three-dimensionality of its characters and their fractured family relationship.
While the Playbill describes the setting as “here” and “now,” the action unfolds more like a period piece from a pre-cellphone time when people took photographs with Polaroid cameras and genuinely wondered if a date had snubbed them without texting them for clarification.
Still, Parks’ societal and satirical themes are still very much in evidence — those historically weighted character names are no accident, nor is Booth’s introduction of a handgun early in the first act. It’s just that this time around, the fraternal rivalry seems to dominate the action, a credit to the two crackerjack lead performances.
Hawkins exudes a beaten-downness from his current circumstances, forced to shack up with his younger brother in a dingy boardinghouse room (designed by Arnulfo Maldonado) after getting kicked out by his wife — yet he comes alive in moments, whether picking out a blues song on a guitar or settling back into the banter and quick-handed exercise of three-card monte.
In contrast, Abdul-Mateen conveys the restlessness of a young man who seems forever shy of bringing himself to the starting gate of life — one who is forever seeking the approval of others, including the parents who left the boys to fend for themselves at an early age.
Both actors display an impressive physicality, commanding attention in long dialog-free scenes and circling each other in the cramped bed-sit like wary prizefighters on the senior circuit. They manage to goad each other in ways that feel both natural and revealing of their complicated backstories — right up to a final moment that still packs a punch even if you saw it coming from the show’s opening minutes.