The brothers at the center of Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog bear the unlikely names of Lincoln and Booth -- their father's "idea of a joke." The names carry some hefty metaphorical weight in Parks's story about violent sibling rivalry. Stuck together in Booth's one-room apartment, the brothers worm their way through constant conflict, each vying for power. Sometimes the fighting is wildly funny; other times it's tragic. The endgame is obvious from the start because of the characters' names -- and the revolver Booth keeps tucked in his belt. But like any well-told tale, the thrill is in watching how it all goes down, especially in the Alley Theatre's powerful production, which is kept ablaze by Amy Morton's direction and the pyrotechnic performances of David Rainey and K. Todd Freeman.
Rainey's Lincoln is one of the most richly textured characters to strut across an Alley stage in quite some time. His story includes a dark past full of familial loss and bad behavior. He was a master of the sidewalk scam called three-card monte, but because of unhappy circumstances he's given that up. Nowadays he just wants to keep his day job, where he makes enough to pay the rent and buy some food for himself and his out-of-work brother. And even his day job is weird. He plays Abraham Lincoln in an arcade, where folks spend money for the opportunity to shoot blanks at him.
That a black man named Lincoln must wear whiteface to play out the assassination of the president who freed the slaves is only one of the deeply ironic ways that Parks examines the terrifying power of history to shape us, or contort us, into the monsters we become. She's also interested in familial history, which falls obliquely, like a haunting winter light, throughout this story. At one point, Lincoln says, "People like their historical shit in a certain way," implying that we mold the past into narratives we're comfortable with. But history seems to get the better of Lincoln and Booth. Abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves, the brothers have only each other. While they were still boys, they learned to fend for themselves, and now their need for each other is surpassed by only a hunger left over from childhood. They crave something good out of a world filled with loss and longing: a pretty woman, a silk suit, a bottle of fine champagne.
Especially troubled is younger brother Booth. Played by Freeman, he's a tight knot of desperation. Booth shows a fearsome cool when he recalls the day his mother left her boys, but he's clearly got some old, festering wounds and, as a result, needs power more than anything. He believes he can get it from Lincoln, if only his brother will teach him how to play the cards. It's Booth's desire for power and Lincoln's refusal to relinquish it that provides the spine for Parks's story. The beauty is in the writing. Gorgeously lyrical throughout, the script is filled with lush lines like "You done jinxed up the joint with your raggedy recollections."
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But for all its ferocious beauty, the play's second act somehow fails to live up to the expectations Parks sets with Act I. With the denouement a given, one can't help but wish that the story weren't so predictable as the ending nears. And though the landscape here contains all the ingredients to move us, somehow the story fails to develop the emotional resonance that seems to lie just under the surface. The intelligence of the writing glistens, but Parks keeps the heart of her story well hidden, and she never quite lets us feel for her characters as they grapple with their deep desires.
Still, Topdog/Underdog is absolutely riveting theater. Even in its weakest moments, the writing is stunning. And Rainey is reason enough to see this play: He gives one of the most exquisitely memorable performances seen on any Houston stage this year.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II might very well be the most famous writing team in musical theater history. Together, they created Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific. Flower Drum Song, written in 1958, is considered one of their lesser works, and it hadn't gotten much attention until David Henry Hwang rewrote the book and found the darker side of this story of a Chinese girl's immigration to America. Many changes have been made to the original Broadway story, which is based on a novel by C.Y. Lee. In the original, Mei-Li is a mail-order bride; now she's a girl running from an oppressive government that killed her defiant father.
Not only has the new story been infused with a more realistic take on the immigrant's experience, but it's been sauced up a bit with some sexy costumes and slinky dance numbers. Despite all of this retooling, we're still left with a sweet production that never catches fire like it should.
The problem with this show, which was brought here by Theater Under the Stars, has nothing to do with the performers. They are charming. Yuka Takara's Mei-Li is angelic as she graciously enters the less-than-gracious world of America. And it's astonishing to hear the enormous voice that comes out of this tiny, lovely-faced woman. But the perpetual virtuousness written into her character makes it hard for the story to gather much steam. Also strong is the sexy Jose Llana as Ta, Mei-Li's love interest. He's the totally Americanized immigrant who must learn to love his own culture if he's ever going to find happiness. But the character's struggle isn't given enough time on stage to make us care as much as we should.
The show's weakness is its complex web of stories, all competing for our attention. There's the story of Mei-Li and Ta's love. There's also the story of Ta's conflict with his father (James Saito). And then there's Ta's crush on Linda Low (played with seductive glee by Emily Hsu). Yet another story revolves around Chao (Bobby Pestka), who falls for Mei-Li. And that doesn't begin to cover the stories whirling around the nightclub/Chinese opera, where Mei-Li spends time working as a waitress. All these add up to a mishmash of tales that never get a chance to gather the singular energy this show needs.
But even with its flaws, Flower Drum Song is better than much of what calls itself musical theater these days. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote it, after all. As unruly as the story might be, it's still compelling. -- Lee Williams
Topdog/Underdog: Through February 15 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421. $40-$45.
Flower Drum Song: Through February 1 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. $25-$68.
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