No Henry Higgins is going to swoop into the Shaw Festival's Studio Theatre this month and rescue Suzan-Lori Parks' characters from their grim lives of poverty. The two black brothers in "Topdog/Underdog" have no one to rely on but each other, and there is nothing "fair" about it.
Lincoln and his younger brother, Booth (they were named that way as a grim joke by their drunken father), share a crummy room with no running water, no sink, no toilet and no prospects. The play opens there and stays there, starting with Booth, alone, practicing his moves for three-card monte, the quick-handed street con game. He wants to make it his living, but he's no good at it, although Lincoln once ruled at the game, before he lost his touch after a friend was shot.
"Picka red card you picka winner picka black card you picka loser picka black card you pick another loser --," Booth chants, introducing the rhythmic refrain that Parks repeats throughout her play as the brothers jockey to rule -- to be top dog of -- their wretched roost. The game represents the men's lives: no matter how hard they keep their eyes on the prize, their hopes keep disappearing in fate's sleight of hand.
Despite his situation, Booth (Kevin Hanchard) is optimistic. He wants to be a winner and has nothing to lose; unemployed, he lives off what he can "boost" from local retailers and Lincoln's earnings.
Lincoln (Nigel Shawn Williams) has no ordinary job, as we see the moment he arrives on stage. He comes through a door as a ridiculous figure, smeared in whiteface and dressed like Abe Lincoln -- stovepipe hat, ratty coat, a beard that hooks behind his ears. Those are his work clothes. Linc works in a shooting arcade, sitting with his back to patrons who pay to sneak up from behind and "assassinate" the president with a cap gun. It's a concept made even more grotesque by the irony of a "brother" playing Honest Abe, waiting to be killed.
"It's not easy by any stretch," Lincoln proclaims. Even so, he won't complain: "It's a sit-down job with benefits," he says, and he's scared to death of losing it, of being replaced by a wax dummy.
This is the framework for Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning comedic drama, and it makes for an exceptional and un-Shaw-like evening. The brothers' lives could not be further from that of the charming resort town on Lake Ontario. Lincoln sleeps in a recliner, a bottle of booze his lullaby; Booth curls up on a cot over an overflowing stash of porn, finding his own private release under the covers.
Searingly intense in its intimacy, its language and its portrayal of these two desperate lives, "Topdog/Underdog" hangs onto its humanity and its art with a grip like death.
Hanchard and Williams deliver Parks' deft poetic dialogue like skilled rappers, making it natural and musical at the same time. Lines repeat and reflect on themselves like this: "I stole and I stole generously," Booth says. Or "I don't touch the cards; I don't touch the cards no more," from Lincoln.
The comic touches are rich, as when a bulging Booth peels off the layers of his day's work in one scene -- undressing to reveal suits for himself and his brother, shirts, shoes, ties, the works, like someone in an episode of "I Love Lucy."
But the drama is wrenching, taking over the night Booth waits up until dawn for his girlfriend, "Amazing Grace," to come for a dinner that will never happen, and when Linc does indeed lose his job. We know by now that the brothers were abandoned by their parents; we see them physically and emotionally stripped, trying to get on top of the forces holding them down. Parks wants us to root for them, and for the bond they share, because that's all they have.
And her conclusion is all the more powerful because we do.
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4 )
WHEN: Through Aug. 27
WHERE: Shaw Festival Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
INFO: 800 511-7429, www.shawfest.com