Shell Games

Face Value: Mos Def, left, and Jeffrey Wright in Topdog/UnderdogPhoto: Michael Daniel

Every dog will have his day seems to be the starting idea of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, which has now moved to Broadway (and was further rewarded last week with a Pulitzer Prize). The final idea is dog eat dog, as the underdog becomes the top dog, destructively for both.

We get two black brothers: Lincoln, the elder, works in a penny arcade, in whiteface and Abe Lincoln drag, so customers can play Booth and shoot him; younger brother Booth (their drunken father jokily named them thus), a master thief, is otherwise unemployed, but owns the shabby rooming-house quarters they now inhabit. Lincoln was thrown out by his wife, Cookie; Booth’s girlfriend, Grace, blows hot and cold, but Booth thinks he is reconquering her. Part of his plan is to develop the same skills at three-card monte that Lincoln, who has given up cards, used to have.

About a third of this two-character play is taken up with talk about the hustle, by one or another brother practicing it, by Lincoln coaching Booth, and, finally, by the brothers playing against each other. This grows pretty monotonous as the elaborate spiel involved in the scam is recited like a mantra by younger or older hustler. Family history, Booth’s problems with Grace, and Lincoln’s losing his job make up the rest of this comedy that, in an unearned climactic switcheroo, ends as melodrama.

I may have somewhat underestimated the play when reviewing it last year at the Public Theater; on second viewing, certain clevernesses emerge, although there still isn’t much to sympathize with in either bro, to care about which dog will come out on top. But that doesn’t stop one from applauding George C. Wolfe’s resourceful direction and the pungent performances of Jeffrey Wright, who repeats as Lincoln, and Mos Def, who replaces Don Cheadle as Booth. Parks, who has had a black Lincoln impersonator in a previous play, is working out an obsessive theme fraught with symbolic import for her, but unimparted to the audience.

According to an invention of the poet Stesichorus (ca. 630-555 B.C.), the real Helen was detained in Egypt by its king, who sent the seducer Paris packing to Troy. The gods, however, created a pseudo-Helen for him, and it was she over whom the Trojan War was fought. Seven years after that ten-year war, Menelaus came to Egypt, forgave and reclaimed the real Helen, and returned to Sparta with her. That is the subject of Euripides’s Helen, as it is also of Ellen McLaughlin’s muddy and dreary Helen, now at the Public.

A confused piece, this Helen takes place in an amalgam of modern and Homeric times, and makes scant sense in terms of either. Worse yet, this is a would-be comedy that its director, the playwright Tony Kushner, has camped up into blatant farce, although some of the blatancy is already in the writing. Thus Meneleus (McLaughlin’s ignorant misspelling) describes the Trojan War as “all for some schmuck of a husband whose whore of a wife threw her dress up over her head for a houseguest.” The author is more than a mixer, a scrambler of metaphors, e.g.: “Battles reeled and spun treading centuries of civilization under their bloody wheels. Like corn under a millstone …” For Helen, the war is a “saga that roars inside her. She can hear it sing to her at night, murmuring its characters and incidents, drunk with the poignant flurry of its countless details.”

The other Helen, in Troy, has supernatural powers. She can not only, from the outside, identify every inmate of the Trojan horse but also whisper through the wood, calling each man by the secret nickname his wife has given him. The goddess Athena drops in on the real Helen in her modern Egyptian hotel suite and proves an arrogant, mannered bitch (as Kushner directed and Phylicia Rashad plays her). We are also treated to Io, changed back from a cow into a woman but retaining her cow’s ears.

Kushner has goosed everyone into outrageous hamming. This includes the wonderful Donna Murphy, as a Helen who kitsches it up in a hotel room she never leaves, and the good Johanna Day as a silly Io, but who could make a silk purse out of a cow’s ear? Also Denis O’Hare as that schmucky Meneleus, and the ill-served Marian Seldes as an Egyptian servant made to strike the poses of women on the walls of ancient Egypt. The shrill-voiced Rashad outcamps all, except perhaps the campy elevator that does maddening tricks, and may even sing an aria from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène. (I would have preferred something from Richard Strauss’s Die aegyptische Helena.)

Michael Yeargan’s set maintains some dignity, as do Susan Hilferty’s costumes, except for the helmeted Athena’s silver sheath emphasizing the wearer’s weight. The last scenes, with long meaningless pauses punctuating long meaningless speeches, suggest that Helen is Ellen’s self-portrait: “I shall die having accomplished nothing. I saw nothing. I heard nothing.”

And certainly learned nothing.

H. Leivick’s 1921 verse drama The Golem is probably no better in the original Yiddish than in Joseph C. Landis’s 1966 translation, adapted here by David Fishelson, artistic director of the new Manhattan Ensemble Theater. met mounted it for having relevance to September 11 (which it hasn’t) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which it has). The adaptation consists mostly of cuts, of which there cannot be enough. According to Jewish legend, the sixteenth-century rabbi Judah Loew (here called the Maharal) created from lumps of clay an indestructible creature, the golem, to level the persecutors of Prague’s Jews, accused of making matzoh with the blood of Christian infants.

Despite Fishelson’s claim that The Golem does not advocate “Jewish pacifism – or even passivity – in the face of destruction,” it seems to me to advocate precisely that: It even brings onstage a passive, unliberating Messiah. And the golem gets out of hand (presumably like Ariel Sharon), and must be returned to dust after it turns on its own by putting the make on the rabbi’s daughter with fatal consequences.

Even as the legend suffers diminishment by Leivick’s doggerel and feeble invention, the MET’s limited scenic and histrionic resources further minimize it. The guest appearance of Robert Prosky, in a restrained performance as the Maharal, is commendable, but the others either overact or do not act at all under Lawrence Sacharow’s direction. Beowulf Boritt’s set may be the best modest means can buy, and Michael Chybowski’s lighting is, as usual, expert. But except for the anti-militarist message, which must hold special appeal for some, I can find nothing of interest here.

By Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by George C. Wolfe, starring Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def.
By Ellen McLaughlin; directed by Tony Kushner, starring Donna Murphy.
The Golem
Revival of the play by H. Leivick; starring Robert Prosky.

Shell Games