Topdog's skillful game of cards produces a winner.

Monte Haul 

Topdog's skillful game of cards produces a winner.

Forget weenie roasts, fireworks and the red-white-and-blue. For playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, America means loaded weapons, Crown Royal and crooked card games.

Parks was all of 25 when The New York Times called her 1989's "most promising playwright." If that was a burden to her, you wouldn't know it from her ascension to a place atop the list of black female playwrights. Her status was assured by her 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog, a marvelous play that can be humorous but is so filled with pain, you want to look away. As magnetically acted as it is here, the only choice is to look it square in the face.

The play opens with Booth (Cedric Hayman), alone in his ratty apartment practicing a game of three-card monte. One senses immediately his charisma; it's electric. When his brother, Lincoln (Damron Russel Armstrong), enters, his allure is on a different circuit; he's sad and world weary.

Also disconcerting is how Lincoln is dressed. He arrives from work, where he plays Abraham Lincoln at a weird arcade at which visitors can take shots at the back of his head, as if he's sitting for that fateful night at Ford's Theatre. He wears a stovepipe hat, a phony beard, a fancy dress coat and, because he's black, a layer of white greasepaint on his face. He's like a beaten-down ghost in his own skin -- or, as his brother says, "a bedraggled shit."

For two-and-a-half riveting hours, Parks flays open their present with side trips to their brutal past. Booth and Lincoln exorcise their demons, both with monologues and back-and-forth banter at oddly random intervals. They tote plenty of baggage, mostly about how their mother and father abandoned them two years apart. And like most adult survivors of abuse and neglect, they're less angry (though they're that, too) than they are perpetually lost and inquisitive. In one scene, Booth can't get over why his mother left without suitcases, while Lincoln is closer to the core issue: Why'd she leave at all?

The brothers argue about more than their screwed-up parents. Booth wants Lincoln to return to three-card monte, the game that brought Lincoln his closest whiff of glory. Lincoln hates his job (when he's let go in the second act, Booth tellingly says, "You're free at last"), but he's adamant about staying clean.

The audience is torn: Lincoln would be going backward, from legit work to always watching his back, yet he would regain his evaporated self-worth.

As downbeat as Parks' play is, every facet of this production positively vibrates -- even, strangely, Gary Mosby's set design, with its grim, water-stained walls; and Jeffrey Cady's lighting design, which evokes a room that has never tasted natural light. Mark Robbins' direction is first-rate, giving the show both a patina of truth and a surfeit of theatricality that's never stagy.

Hayman and Armstrong completely give themselves over to their characters. Hayman, fairly new to the local theater scene, makes a dynamic contribution; he's all testosterone, yet he has a childlike vulnerability. Armstrong is perhaps more impressive; he's worked on Kansas City stages for years, at times taking too much delight in his own acting. That trait is invisible in this performance, which clearly merits his pride. Postscript: About forty people showed up to watch last Friday's first performance of Fifteen Minute Window in two windows of the Jenkins Music Building at 1217 Walnut downtown. In the audience were Barry Kyle, the director of this joint collaboration between Urban Culture Project and the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theatre Department, Urban Culture Project's Kate Hackman, a couple of Kansas City Rep board members and several familiar actors.

The piece (which actually runs about 25 minutes) begins in the north window with a tableaux that includes a video loop of 9/11 and two disembodied faces poking from the back wall. After a quick scene recalling varying interpretations of that date, the window shuts like a camera iris, and the scene moves to the adjoining window about 10 feet away.

There, two buff guys wearing only tiny underwear and one banner each (one reads "Republican," the other "Democrat") flirt with the crowd like Bourbon Street go-go boys. Following this funny and sexy scene, the mood grows more stern or haunting, including a scene, set to a Moby song, in which a woman in a black burqa speaks about being Muslim in Kansas City.

The piece is blatantly partisan, but it's also like a "Vote or Die" public-service announcement. Friday's audience greeted each scene with scattered applause, even from the young, skinny guy overheard to say as he crossed the 10-foot expanse between windows, "I'm getting tired of walking back and forth." Fifteen Minute Window will be repeated the next two Fridays between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.

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