The Choler of Money

Turgenev's trademark mixture of clearsightedness and compassion flickers only intermittently through this piece. Between them, Poulton and director Arthur Penn seem to have left large areas of its story unexplored, mainly content to clear space for Bates and Langella to give alternating displays of actor-fireworks, as if a play were a sort of showbiz debate club or tennis match. Unluckily for Bates, his particular gift is for the kind of Pinter-era acting in which emotions are only suggested under a deadpan mask. Given mid-19th-century material like this, which demands constant emotional expression, he strives showily to convey every moment's feelings, so that you tend to see the striving instead of the feeling. Consequently, Langella, who only needs to be excessive and narcissistic, takes game, set, and match. It's been eons since anyone onstage gloated as excessively or adored himself as narcissistically as Langella, whose skill at squishing all the juice out of such roles is making him our contemporary Cyril Ritchard. Between these two, Enid Graham, as the beleaguered heiress, hardly gets a look in; the remainder of the cast, including Bates's son Benedick, is essentially dealt with on the same level as the props.

Acting as flamboyant, and better grounded, is the central attraction of Topdog/Underdog, the best work Jeffrey Wright's done so far on the New York stage, an auspicious acting debut for Mos Def, and George C. Wolfe's best directing job to date, since for once the panache infuses the event, rather than seeming imposed on it. The problematic part is the event's core, a script by Suzan-Lori Parks that begins as one kind of play, pauses periodically to make room for items resembling vaudeville acts, and then turns, in an arbitrary, unearned fashion, into another kind of play altogether. Parks is usually so decisive in her methods that this is a puzzler. Its last scene in particular, loaded with past revelations and resentments that seem to come out of nowhere, has the ring of a leftover from somebody else's old movie.

Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog: the full monte
photo: Michal Daniel
Mos Def in Topdog/Underdog: the full monte


The Graduate
By Terry Johnson, based on the novel by Charles Webb and the screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry
Plymouth Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street

Fortune's Fool
By Ivan Turgenev, translated by Mike Poulton
Music Box Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street

By Suzan-Lori Parks
Ambassador Theatre
Broadway and 49th Street

Possibly this ending tempted Parks because the eerie, iconic situation she sets up seems unresolvable. Two black brothers named Lincoln and Booth (a malicious joke of their father's) share a tenement room. Responsible, earnest Lincoln earns their living—by posing as President Lincoln in an arcade where customers shoot at him. The younger Booth, a jobless dropout, yearns to be an expert three-card monte dealer, as Lincoln was before a friend's street murder led to his reform. The brothers' mixture of camaraderie and rivalry, like their opposing outlooks, is something they're stuck with, not an uncommon phenomenon in Parks's meditative works; the outside circumstances that alter it don't seem to justify the final violence. With actors this good animating Parks's phrase-layered prose, much of the piece sounds so alive in its stasis that you wonder why she and Wolfe felt the need to push it onward; it's like trying to turn a house into a car.

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