Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

“Watch me now,” urges a petty thief, who’s not quite ready for scrutiny as his hands flutter and fly in the opening moments of Topdog/Underdog. In Suzan-Lori Parks’ drama of brotherly love and loathing, Booth (Jahi Kearse) may be able to pinch a whole meal from a restaurant—complete with tablecloth, flatware, wine goblets, and even a candle—to impress a girlfriend who’ll barely give him the time of day, but when throwing down cards in three-card monte, he can’t seem to tame the air currents in his airless apartment.

“Red you win,” he says to an imaginary mark, and “black you lose,” but the cards keep flipping over to reveal their spots and squelch the con. “Shit,” he mutters again and again. “Shit.”

Behind him, a stovepipe-hatted figure in beard and whiteface slips quietly through

the apartment’s door to watch—Booth’s older brother, Lincoln (Thomas W. Jones II), still humiliatingly in costume after a train ride home from playing his namesake at an amusement arcade, where strangers pay to “assassinate” him every afternoon. The monte moves that Booth can’t quite manage were Lincoln’s specialty until his wife left him and he gave up the game. Once a fast-rising con artist with cash in his pocket and a girl on each arm, he’s now reduced to sleeping on his little brother’s Barcalounger and turning over his paycheck on Fridays to help with the rent. But that doesn’t mean Lincoln’s not looking for an angle to exploit. Hence the surreptitious spying, followed by the thud of the door closing as he makes his presence known, secure in the knowledge that Booth can’t be sure how long he’s been there.

These two—wannabe and wouldabeen—have a complicated relationship, as you’ll gather before they even speak to each other in the production now playing at the Studio Theatre. Booth alternately worships and despises Lincoln—who, for his part, affects more superiority and aloofness than is probably wise when living with a hothead who always carries a gun in his pocket. Soon it’s clear, from both the intensity of feeling they bring to the thrust and parry of conversation and the too-blatant monikers with which their playwright has freighted them, that their sibling rivalry is likely to escalate to mortal combat.

Still, when they’re simply behaving like brothers in Joy Zinoman’s mostly naturalistic staging—teasing and taunting each other over everything from those monte moves to pornography—they’re vibrantly theatrical characters. Jones’ Lincoln corners the evening’s laid-back-charm concession with a faintly defeated manner that modulates from toadying arcade subservience to cool street hucksterism. The former extreme prompts his brother’s scorn (“You limp-dick, pathetic Uncle Tom!”), the latter his grudging admiration—sometimes almost simultaneously, because Booth is nothing if not volatile. Kearse makes him a scammer who wants to be cock of the walk but is too insecure to carry it off—which may actually be a good thing in his line of work. Watching Booth posture and puff himself up, you realize he can’t be aware that it’s his very unobtrusiveness that allows him to walk unnoticed from a department store wearing multiple pilfered suits, shirts, ties, and even (in an especially neat trick of sartorial subterfuge) shoes.

The author has provided both performers with long, looping vernacular riffs, and Jones and Kearse negotiate their rhythms not just skillfully, but with the sort of artful artlessness that makes Parks’ most high-flown conceits seem natural and unforced. The author, however, does elaborate the central conceit—that the characters’ speaking cadences mimic the fluid physicality of three-card monte—a bit more insistently than she should. I confess I’ve not entirely understood the excitement that’s surrounded Parks since the New York Times pronounced her “the year’s most promising playwright” in 1989. Granted, she has a confident, casual way of blending myth and fantasy into otherwise conventional stories, and she has an undeniably deft way with words, but so do a number of other contemporary writers.

And plots really aren’t Parks’ forte. Studio’s 1997 mounting of her drama Venus, which dealt with an African woman cruelly brought to England as a callipygian sideshow freak, explored Western notions of beauty in an interestingly offbeat way. But when Woolly Mammoth tackled In the Blood, her more recent work about a heroic, homeless single mother, it seemed coldly schematic, and the Lincoln/Booth construct in Topdog/Underdog is similarly chilly, amounting to a sort of structural joke, the symbolism of which becomes less politically and psychologically interesting the more you think about it. It pales, for instance, next to Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, which deals with the love/hate relationship of two South African brothers.

George Wolfe’s Broadway staging of Topdog/Underdog last year (with Mos Def as Booth) attracted the attention of the Pulitzer committee, and it would be churlish to begrudge Parks the first Pulitzer for drama ever awarded to an African-American woman. Still, the approbation of literary judges doesn’t keep the play’s first act from feeling attenuated, as monte scamming is both explained and illustrated and the lives of the brothers are given a similar twice-over. Nor does it make the second act catch fire until said act is almost over.

When it does, though, the theatrical heat is considerable. At Studio’s final preview, the audience seemed so shattered by the play’s last few moments that it didn’t know whether to applaud or just sit there in stunned silence.

The problem with what precedes those moments, however, is that Parks is on much firmer ground when she’s dealing with the brothers’ present circumstances than when she’s delving into the long-ago family crises that theoretically explain them. The childhood motivations she comes up with (parental abandonment, betrayal, sex play) are predictable to the point of unbelievability—unnecessarily so, when Lincoln and Booth interact in the here and now credibly enough that they don’t need special pleading.

That’s especially true as Kearse and Jones bounce off each other and around designer Russell Metheny’s appropriately seedy one-room flat, finishing each other’s sentences and occasionally slipping into passive-aggressive brotherly routines that have the easy, lived-in feel of long-held family tradition. They’re terrific together. And on more than one occasion—including that undeniably rending finale—the moments in which they register most strongly are wordless. CP