THEATER REVIEW BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Only two African-American women have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Suzan-Lori Parks was the first to be honored in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog,” while Lynn Nottage proved the runaway favorite in 2009 for “Ruined.”
Fortuitously, audiences in Los Angeles are being treated to back-to-back productions of these two plays. A staging of “Topdog,” directed by Martin Papazian, ended its run at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood on September 12, just as “Ruined,” featuring Tom Mardirosian in its stellar cast, opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood on September 15.
Rare have been the times when I’ve had as visceral an experience in the theater as I did while watching “Ruined” – a transfixing and magnificently performed drama about women in a Congo brothel, for whom prostitution actually affords a refuge from the physical and sexual violence that cuts a swath through their war-torn country. Nottage spent time in Uganda, interviewing Congolese refugees and incorporating their true stories into her fictionalized script. The resulting play is necessarily heavy of subject, but neither preachy nor sentimental. It can well serve as a primer for Armenian playwrights on how to dramatize trauma while avoiding melodrama.
In director Kate Whoriskey’s capable hands, Nottage’s script alternately pulsates with tension even as it soars with emotion. Whoriskey elicits astonishing performances from the four actresses (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Cherise Boothe, Portia, and Condola Rashad) who form the core of the cast, and from Mardirosian, who portrays a diamond trader in their midst. All five, as well as Russell G. Jones (another standout), have been with the production since its New York incarnation and inhabit their roles with wondrous ease.
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Intimate theaters love two-character plays, which make modest production demands, although they allow no room for error when it comes to casting. “Topdog/Underdog” offers a pair of remarkable roles for African-American actors. Those roles were originated by the über-talented duo of Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright when the play premiered in New York nearly a decade ago. Papazian was so riveted by that original production that he “made it a personal goal” to direct “Topdog” himself.
The play revolves around two brothers with the loaded names Lincoln and Booth – after the 16th president and his assassin. Abandoned as children, the brothers, who share a dilapidated apartment, are both broke and broken. Lincoln earns a meager living by portraying his namesake in whiteface. Booth, however, wants him to quit the latter-day minstrel show and team up with him to run a three-card monte hustle. Lincoln’s reluctance leads to the inevitable conflict – and outcome – foreshadowed by the characters’ names.
Papazian’s love for the play was evident in his painstakingly crafted staging. Papazian firmly grasped the undulations in the script and accordingly calibrated the production’s mood, pace, and intensity. Under his direction, the cast was able to capture the lyricism infused into the dialogue, and execute elements of vaudeville and minstrelsy that Parks had subverted. A.K. Murtadha’s portrayal of Lincoln was particularly winning, but M.D. Walton’s take on Booth was often strained.
Exhilarating though certain scenes were, the production’s running time of two-and-a-half hours proved fatiguing at times. Such length may be appropriate for contemporary plays with epic breadth, like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” or Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” – but not for a chamber piece like “Topdog.” That may explain why the play is not revived more frequently – and must wait for a director like Papazian to inject it with new passion.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Velvet Revolution.”