REVIEW: The Clubhouse Theatre’s ‘Topdog/Underdog’ explores highly charged sibling rivalry

Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 12.12.55 AM.pngSibling relationships are often fraught and complicated.

And in case the holidays aren’t doing quite enough to remind you of this fact, you could also see The Clubhouse Theatre’s gripping production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play,“Topdog/Underdog.”

The two-hander focuses on two brothers, pointedly named Booth (Nigel Tutt) and Lincoln (Brian Marable, also the show’s director). Their father reportedly cooked up these names as a joke, but Link, at the play’s start, holds a (surreal) job that requires him to impersonate his Presidential namesake, wearing whiteface, an artificial beard, and a stovepipe hat as arcade patrons shoot blanks at him. Booth, meanwhile, shoplifts everything he can get his hands on; pursues a local hottie named Grace; lets Link temporarily move in after his marriage falls apart; and longs to become the Three Card Monte master Link had once been, before his “right hand man” was killed and he left the con behind.

Link refuses to share his card secrets with Booth, though, and when Link loses his job, the two end up in a tense, winner-takes-all game that will forever alter their lives.

The Clubhouse Theater, located at 10717 W. McNichols Rd. in Detroit, is part of a largely dark strip you might drive by a time or two before spotting the letters “CHT.” Having opened its doors at the start of 2018, Clubhouse now has four productions under its belt; and according to a program note, artistic director Marable, a Cass Tech and Wayne State grad, has long dreamed of opening a theater in the area where he grew up.

And CHT’s concrete, hardscrabble context – its neighborhood, as well as the performance space itself – do lend added resonance to Parks’ drama, which is haunted by the historical cross-section of race and power. Typical sibling rivalry tensions thus get amped up to astronomic levels, so that even though the brothers love and need each other (in both cases, they’re really all each other has), they also both feel an urgent need to establish themselves as the male alpha.

Hence the play’s title.

And Booth is clearly the underdog from the get-go. His ham-fisted-but-determined card-work, and too-strenuous sales pitch, underscore this, particularly when compared to Link’s silk-smooth motions and patter.

Tutt and Marable masterfully execute these key moments of brotherly contrast without ever pushing too hard, so the audience simply registers the difference as a natural outgrowth of character. Tutt’s Booth is always subtly simmering, so that even as he’s dismissing something as no big deal, or proudly displaying shoplifted clothes, or telling what seems to be a boastful lie, you get the sense that Booth can never quite drown out the cruel, self-loathing loop playing in his own head. Marable, meanwhile, makes Link a man wholly accustomed to being one-up on his little brother. This “natural order” is something from which Link draws comfort, and when Booth aims to leapfrog Link, the audience sees, in Marable’s eyes, that a fire has been lit, despite the actor’s seemingly assured, measured demeanor. It’s nothing short of a clinic in the power of restraint.

As a side note, I saw Marable in this same role in 2010, when I reviewed the now-defunct Blackbird Theatre’s production of “Topdog” in Ann Arbor. He gave a good performance then, but his skills have deepened and matured in the interim, so the Clubhouse’s take will likely be the one that sticks with me over the long haul.

And the Clubhouse seems to be quite a family affair. Skyler Marable is listed as “Topdog”’s technical director, while Robert Marable (Brian’s uncle) designed the fittingly spare set. I must say, it’s heartening to see not only a family working together to build something within a community, but also an artist working hard to bring art – good art, at that – to his own neighborhood. His place of origin.

Since this may well be the last theater review I ever write, after 15 years, I must confess that this feels like a potentially hopeful coda. Theater companies, particularly in Michigan, have always had to fight hard just to survive, figure out ways to get patrons out, and then somehow make magic on next-to-nothing budgets. Clubhouse is among the newest theater companies in the area to launch, despite this daunting climate – an artistic leap of faith that continues to inspire awe in me each time it happens.

So here’s hoping that in CHT’s case, as well as other new companies in Michigan, art will out.

The Clubhouse Theatre has added a performance of “Topdog/Underdog” on Sunday, December 23 at 2 p.m.

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