There is a horror-like dread that pervades Suzan-Lori Parks’ play “Topdog/Underdog,” which opened Thursday night on Broadway.
And not only because one of its two stars, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, was memorably terrifying in the new “Candyman” movie.
Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. At the John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
The writer clues us in over and over again — sometimes subtly, sometimes like a foghorn — on how her play will end. And we quickly gather that it won’t be very nice. All the while, she misdirects with warmth and distracts using humor. Still, fear always lurks in this small studio apartment.
Director Kenny Leon has helmed a sharp, focused revival of the 2002 drama, with a pair of cracking performances that never let up.
“Topdog/Underdog” pops from the get-go when Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) moves into his younger brother Booth’s (Abdul-Mateen) shabby digs after getting kicked out by his wife. Crammed into a tiny room, they spar and laugh and spar some more.
Their dad named them as a history gag and Link has turned his moniker, in a truly messed-up way, into his profession. He works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where people shoot at him with a fake pistol. Booth, meanwhile, gets by on shoplifting.
Both of the guys, who are black, are dealers of three-card monte — the street corner gamble where a mark tries to follow one red or black card as it’s rapidly moved around. Find the card, and you’re the winner.
In that game lies the overarching point of Parks’ drama. A participant is told by the dealer that if they simply follow the rules and point to the correct card, they’ll strike it rich. But in reality they have been set up to fail. The writer’s perspective on her two characters’ lives, and those of the real people they represent, is that doom is inevitable.
Even though her characters — alive with pipe dreams — are star-crossed, Parks finds unexpected zigzags on their path. Link and Booth, who has decided to go by the name Three-card, mostly rant or boast about their days outside the apartment — even though we never leave it or witness what they’ve been up to. The audience begins to doubt the truth of their conversations.
Booth brags about a girl he’s seeing named Grace and his prowess in bed, and Lincoln tells funny stories from the arcade. Later on, when they’re alone and talking out loud to themselves, their tales become darker; their eyes fade to frightening.
Abdul-Mateen, known by many as Cal Abar on “Watchmen,” is assured and easily charismatic in his hot-tempered Broadway debut. He has a mastery of what it means to be the younger sibling, the underdog, in how he bouncily claws away at his brother’s perceived superiority. Right now, though, his final scene comes just short of its towering emotional potential.
As Lincoln, Hawkins (from the “In The Heights” film, “BlacKkKlansman“) is weathered by the world — bruised, tired and punishing, but also grandfatherly for someone so young. (Maybe it’s the fake Abe beard.) When he furiously deals three-card monte, the actor drives the speeches with Nascar adrenaline. Hawkins is thrilling.
The duo grapple on Arnulfo Maldonado’s mostly straightforward pod of a bed, armchair and non-functioning sink. But one decorative element leaps out. On the top of the stage and on the back wall are curved golden curtains that look just like the draperies that line the box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, where President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. They are grand yet foreboding.
Never before have curtains been so loud.