Pretty much from Cain and Abel on, a certain amount of rivalry has been baked into the fraternal relationship.
In Billy Porter’s searing and often riveting production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog’’ at Huntington Theatre Company, the rivalry between two African-American brothers pivots upon matters professional as well as personal. One of them possesses a skill that the other lacks, badly wants, and is determined to acquire.
But while each of them has inflicted wounds on the other and continues to do so as their power struggle unfolds in “Topdog/Underdog,’’ other inexorable forces are at work, factoring into their fates, from the distortions of individual identity engendered by systemic racism to the hypnotic power of illusion to the haunting question of why their parents both abandoned them.
The brothers keep returning to that mystery at the heart of their family history, as if an answer might be found in the retelling. Parks, who in 2002 became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama with “Topdog/Underdog,’’ and whose Civil War-era “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’’ was presented in 2015 at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, is a writer who works in an allegorical vein. She never wants us to forget how much the past impinges on the present.
And indeed, the names of the two brothers are freighted with history: Lincoln and Booth. The names were their father’s idea of a joke. Lincoln, the older of the two, played at the Huntington by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, used to be a master of the street hustling trick called three-card monte.
But he’s given that up and now works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade shooting gallery, complete with stovepipe hat, long frock coat, fake beard, and whiteface. He makes a living by pretending to die, though he is paid less than his white predecessor as customers reenact the assassination of President Lincoln.
The blustering, hotheaded Booth, portrayed by Matthew J. Harris, has a gift for shoplifting, but he’s convinced he could be as good or better than Lincoln at the far more lucrative pursuit of three-card monte, if only his brother would agree to teach him. “I don’t touch the cards no more,’’ Lincoln keeps telling him. Booth says angrily: “You standing in my way.’’
Booth is constantly talking about how much his girlfriend Grace loves him, but there’s no sign of her, and Lincoln’s ex-wife Cookie is long gone, too. However confident the two men may seem at times, it’s a merciless world they inhabit, one in which illusions are steadily stripped away, one that leaves little margin for error or wrong moves. That grim truth of their existence is driven home by the dozens of sharp-pointed planks that protrude like large arrows from the stage of the BU Theatre (the set design is by Clint Ramos), creating a field of menace around Booth’s shabby New York boardinghouse room, where Lincoln is temporarily staying.
Director Porter, who previously helmed “The Colored Museum’’ at the Huntington (and won a Tony Award for his performance in “Kinky Boots’’) demonstrates a lapidary finesse in “Topdog/Underdog.’’ The play is essentially just two guys in a room, talking, but this production is the opposite of static. Porter ratchets up the scorpions-in-a-bottle tension when he needs to, but the director also draws you in with his artful use of shadows. (The lighting design is by Driscoll Otto.) In one memorable scene, Lincoln catches a glimpse of himself in profile while wearing his Honest Abe getup, his identity fractured into shadows on the wall.
As Lincoln, Henderson carries himself with the innate authority of the firstborn, an effect intensified by the actor’s height. Henderson’s Lincoln is a man who keeps his cards close to the vest. The actor endows Lincoln with the deceptive passivity of a professional flimflam artist, the wheels always turning, always looking for an edge, even when it comes to something as small as persuading Booth to swap neckties so Lincoln ends up with the better one, grinning triumphantly.
But it is Harris, as younger brother Booth, who often galvanizes your attention in “Topdog/Underdog.’’ At one point Harris executes an exuberant, striptease-like unveiling of all that Booth has boosted from a department store and hidden beneath his coat, the actor conveying what a rare win it is for the character. More often, though, Harris’s Booth is like an exposed nerve, all of his grievances stockpiled and ready to burst into flames at any moment. It adds up to one of the most compelling performances of the young year in Boston theater.
Play by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Billy Porter. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At BU Theatre, Boston, through April 9. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org