By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
It's such a pleasure to watch a production make something more of a play than seems possible. Two actors -- Kash Goins and Roderick Slocum -- are doing just that in Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play about two African American brothers living on life's underside.
I've never been much for the play, which is too long in the first act at four substantial but realistic scenes, and becomes less believable in the two-scene second act, when family revelations -- and hints at family revelations -- seem to come pretty late in the game.
But under Malika Oyetimein's precise and thoughtful direction, this Topdog/Underdog, on Walnut Street Theatre's fifth-floor stage, is both fluid and fluent.
Goins, a theater artist who is increasingly visible in the region and an imposing actor, plays Lincoln -- a man with a past as a skilled three-card monte dealer on the streets, where the gambling slight-of-hand has apparently caused the murder of one of his cohorts. He's left the game and taken a job with benefits as the human target in a shooting gallery, dressed in a top-hat, fake beard and whiteface so he can be Abraham Lincoln and people can pretend to be John Wilkes Booth as they fire cap guns at him. Consider for a few seconds the tangle of metaphors in that setup.
His brother, named Booth, is played by Slocum. Booth wants so badly to be a three-card-monte dealer, it hurts. But he shows no aptitude for moving the cards around in the flash it takes to confuse a patsy. So he lives, day to day, in a world of lies, inside a broken down apartment with no running water, no bathroom and no sink, which he temporarily shares with his bro. (The aptly grungy set is by Britt Plunkett.)
Goins - whose GoKash Productions is responsible for the show -- is wonderfully nuanced in a role that demands it; his Lincoln is, after all, caught in traps -- a humiliating regular job after a former street life of plenty, plus the apartment he shares with a volatile, do-nothing brother. Slocum is an excellent match in talent, delivering a kinetic Booth whose volatile disposition flip-flops with his empty cockiness.
Together, they give the play an essence I never before discerned. And watching them provide it so naturally is a substantial part of the satisfaction.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.