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  • Jonathan Kalb

On Benign and Malign Laughter



The other night, I witnessed (along with 800 or so other people) a remarkable disruption and fumble near the end of Kenny Leon’s production of Topdog/Underdog at the Golden Theater on Broadway. This play, to remind you, is Suzan-Lori Parks’s extraordinary 2002 drama about two Black brothers named Lincoln and Booth (supposedly as a joke by their absconded father). Lincoln is a former three-card-monte hustler who now works at an arcade dressed up as his presidential namesake, where patrons pay money to shoot him. Booth is a heat-packing petty criminal and wannabe hustler who envies his brother’s skills. The historical karma of their names gives shape to their sibling rivalry and also, ultimately, tragic gravity to their vaudevillesque antics.


Leon’s production, starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins, is the play’s first Broadway revival, and it’s mostly very fine. Anyone who saw the iconic original version directed by George C. Wolfe 20 years ago, starring Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, will notice some striking differences, but this show is also gripping and powerful in its own right. Leon’s Topdog is looser and more realistic than Wolfe’s, occasionally hit-or-miss in its comic timing and averse to slick transitions. Yet its roughness taps new energies in the play by making the brothers feel familiar to us. It’s delightful and thrilling to see this hilarious and troubling work repping and revving again on all cylinders (these are Parks’s repurposed jazz words for its verbal style).


The disruption was this (spoiler alert): at the play’s climax about five minutes before the end, just after the character Booth (Abdul-Mateen) suddenly and shockingly shoots his brother Lincoln in the head, Abdul-Mateen let out a loud sob. Instead of the gasps and squalls of horror one expects at that instant, though, a loud peal of “church laughter” rang out from one section of the audience. “Church laughter” is any laughter inappropriate in a serious context, but this laughter was egregiously inappropriate. The shooting is Topdog’s most solemn moment, the turn in the play when all its levity has drained away and been replaced with pain, resentment, and violence.


Now, who knows why such a clueless reaction ever occurs? Theater audiences are as bewilderingly various as any other random public crowd. These laughers could’ve been kids, for all I know. Or people not used to theater. Or zealots of meme culture whose emotional reactions now amount to nothing more than instantaneous whoops and “likes” of personal identification. Or even spectators who had understood the play’s horror but couldn’t bear it, so they laughed in compensation. Whatever.


What particularly fascinated me was the way the interruption rattled Abdul-Mateen. It brought home how much live theater depends on its audience. Booth has close to 200 words to speak after the murder, including a tricky transition from bluster and defiance to self-doubt to devastating sorrow. Having given a consistently sharp and attuned performance up to that moment, Abdul-Mateen was thwarted from closing out the show with the same aplomb. His sob seems to have been just preverbal enough to unsettle those laughers’ sense of decorum around vulnerability. Cradling the prostrate Hawkins in his arms, he had to force himself stiffly through the weeping that ends the play. It was painful to watch.


Theater disruptions are curious incidents. On the one hand, they shed grim light on audiences, perpetually updating our understanding of that inexhaustible wellspring of human thoughtlessness we can never quite forget however much we try. Cellphone interruptions are the worst of this problem in our era, so much that they’ve prompted a growing faction of star actors (including Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman, Kevin Spacey, and the late Richard Griffiths) to turn holy warriors, shaming offenders from the stage.


On the other hand, disruptions can also shed surprising new light on plays, by shifting the ground against which they’re seen. One example: in 2012 Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon pressed on gallantly in a Broadway performance of Craig Wright’s Grace, a play about hypocritical evangelists, after a patron in the balcony vomited into the orchestra. I can imagine their soldierly composure resembling real grace to some in that night’s audience, and further imagine that thought lingering as a clarifying foil for the cynical grace portrayed in the drama.


Abdul-Mateen’s reaction to the unexpected church laughter held out a similar foil for Topdog/Underdog, for those inclined to see it. It underscored how risky Parks’s mixture of shtick and deadly seriousness always was in this play. Topdog is a race comedy that invites us to laugh at many matters that aren’t really funny at all outside the play’s funhouse-frame (theft, assassination, abandonment, fraternal betrayal, parental betrayal), and the emotional whiplash of its climax isn’t and can’t be easy for anyone to endure, on either side of the footlights.


There’s a kind of sacred pact that’s established between performers and viewers at any non-trivial play, which both cast and audience deeply rely on for the magic of the event to work. It involves not only the basic willingness to suspend disbelief but also some quotient of empathy, a willingness to enter into other people’s possibly very different realities within the fiction and accord them provisional respect. When this compact is simply disregarded or abruptly violated by even a small handful of disrespectful viewers, that can be ruinous. It can break the basic spell that, in a nightly miracle we should never take for granted, transforms roomfuls of atomized, fractious and proudly diverse visitors into audiences.


Photo: Marc. J. Franklin

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks directed by Kenny Leon Golden Theatre


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