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Outstanding Production Of Topdog/Underdog At Two River Theater

By Gary Wien

(RED BANK, NJ) -- Two River Theater Company kicked off its 2012-2013 season on Friday, September 14 with a wonderful production of Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, who also serves as director. This powerful drama was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play during the 2002 season and earned a Pulitzer Prize Award for Parks. The play, which tells the story of two brothers (Lincoln and Booth) and the world of three-card monte, stars the real-life brothers Brandon J. Dirden and Jason Dirden.

The two brothers had to practically raise themselves alone as their parents both abandoned them (at separate times) leaving each $500 as an inheritance. Lincoln's inheritance was spent quickly, but Booth keeps the $500 his mother gave him in a rolled up stocking by his bed.

The play opens with Booth practicing three-card monte. His brother was an excellent con in his day, but he gave up that life when his partner Lonny was shot. Lincoln now works at an arcade where his job is to portray Abraham Lincoln and offer tourists the opportunity to take their own shots at assassinating the President. When Lincoln enters his brother's apartment, he is still dressed as Abraham Lincoln, top hat, beard, and suit.

When Booth tells his brother that he doesn't want him to show up in his apartment as Lincoln, his brother tells him he was forced to leave fully dressed in order to make the bus. On the ride back, Lincoln says he was approached by a kid who wanted his autograph. Lincoln pretended at first not to hear him, but the kid persisted. He waited until he knew the kid absolutely needed to have the autograph and then told him he could have it for ten bucks.

"Originally I was going to ask for five because of the Lincoln connection you know, but something made me ask for ten," said Lincoln.

"Let me guess, he didn't have ten dollars," replied Booth. "All he had was a penny..."

"Nope, he only had a twenty, so I took the twenty and told him to meet me on the bus tomorrow and Honest Abe would bring him his change!" said Lincoln.

While Lincoln was lucky that afternoon, his luck is fading fast as his job is threatening to replace him with a wax dummy. Meanwhile, his brother keeps pestering him to be his partner for three-card monte cons. Lincoln is torn between living straight and earning an honest living and returning to what he knows he's best at. As things get worse on the job front, Lincoln gets his brother to help him jazz up his death scenes in an effort to prove to his boss that he's better than the wax dummy route would be. The scene doesn't go so well though. In fact, if you've ever imagined what it was like when Lincoln got shot, chances are it wasn't anything like the scene imagined on stage! Watching Lincoln hamming up his death was one of the funniest moments in the play.

Booth tells him, "You could scream" in order to make things seem more real, but Lincoln replies, "A wax dummy can scream if they put a voice box in it."

"Yeah, but you can curse!" said Booth.

"I don't want to make it too real," said Lincoln. "That'll scare people and I'll be out of a job for sure... This is a sit down job with benefits. I don't want to get fired. If I get fired, they won't give me a good reference."

Lincoln's struggles with the straight and narrow life are amplified when his brother steals a pair of suits -- one for each of them. As Lincoln gets a taste of the life he once led -- fine clothes, money -- the cards become more and more of an option for him. Instead of joining his brother, he offers to teach him a few tricks but Booth just doesn't seem to have what it takes.

"The first thing you learn is what is, the next thing you learn is what isn't. You don't know what is and what isn't, you don't know shit," explained Lincoln.

Touching the cards for Lincoln is like having sense memory overload. After his brother goes to sleep, Lincoln stays up pondering the possibilities of going back to work on the street. Parks' direction is outstanding towards the end of the first act as Lincoln literally slithers around the cards as if we're seeing the battle between good and evil portrayed. When he finally succumbs, he tosses the cards around as if he was a conductor leading an orchestra. He turns the act of three-card monte into a blend of theatrics with his voice enticing onlookers to part with their money as the cards dance from his hands. It's clear he has found himself again.

If Brandon J. Dirden steals the first act with a tremendous performance then Jason Dirden owns the second. Twists and turns take place throughout the second and final act as the play raises its level and becomes utterly powerful. Jason's character (Booth) is brilliantly portrayed as somebody losing control of reality. As his world is slipping away from him, the tension between Booth and his brother reach a crescendo. The second act is truly masterful writing in my opinion.

The tension in the play is aided by the theater being extremely quiet, more so than any theater I can recall. You literally can hear a pin drop during most of the play. While that might seem good for a drama, it has its down sides as well. Stomachs could be heard rumbling throughout the audience. Please remember to have a pre-show meal before seeing this production! Nevertheless, the quiet seems to bring us closer into the world of these two brothers -- a world in which they were totally on their own, so it makes sense the outside world is never seen nor heard.

More than just a drama, Topdog/Underdog has many hilarious moments throughout. As with all great dramatists, Parks' knows that a good drama benefits from comedic parts to break things up. Before the play, Two River's Artistic Director John Dias recalled that Parks' described the play as ultimately being about family and about love. I'd add that it was also about hopes and dreams, and the dangers of no longer having them. Be sure to catch this tremendous production before it closes.

The Two River Theater is located at 21 Bridge Street in Red Bank, NJ. For more information visit

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Center Players Presents "The Emperor's New Duds"
(FREEHOLD, NJ) --  Center Players Dessert Theater will present a family-friendly production of “The Emperor’s New Duds” at Center Playhouse, 35 South St, in downtown Freehold, NJ from December 7 – 16. A musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” the play was written by Bernice Garfield-Szita, who co-directed the production with Enid Bush.
Centenary Stage’s Young Performers Workshop presents 2018 Winter Festival of Shows
(HACKETTSTOWN, NJ) -- Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Godspell is composed of various musical parables from The Gospel. Jesus Christ recruits a group of followers and teaches them various lessons through song and dance. Toward the end of the second act, the show begins to follow a more linear narrative as Jesus is betrayed by Judas and eventually crucified. Performances are Sunday, December 9 at 5:00pm; Saturday, December 15 at 8pm and Sunday, December 16 at 7:30pm.
The Shakespeare Theatre Presents "The Winter's Tale"
(MADISON, NJ) -- The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s concludes its 56th season with its sixth and final Main Stage production, The Winter's Tale. Last seen at The Shakespeare Theatre in 2008, Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte directs this production of Shakespeare’s tragicomedic romance. Veteran company members Jacqueline Antaramian, Jon Barker, Erin Partin, John Keabler, Raphael Nash Thompson,Seamus Mulcahy, Patrick Toon, and Ames Adamson are among a cast of 20 actors. Performances run from December 5 to December 30. 
American Theater Group Announces Full Cast & Creative For "Tell Them I'm Still Young"
(SOUTH ORANGE, NJ) -- American Theater Group has announced the full cast and creative team for its World Premiere production of Tell Them I’m Still Young, a new play by Julia Doolittle, which will run at the South Orange Performing Arts Center from January 24 - February 3, 2019. Joining the previously announced Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life on the Streets, Men of a Certain Age, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) andMichele Pawk (Hollywood Arms, Hairspray, Mamma Mia) are Janice Amaya (Seen/Unseen) and Seth Clayton (The Madrid).
Holmdel Theatre Company Presents 'ART'
(HOLMDEL, NJ) – The Holmdel Theatre Company (HTC) will present 6 performances of Yasmina Reza’s ‘ART’  from December 7th through December 16th. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton, the play tells the story of what happens when Serge buys an expensive painting, and the reactions of his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. As what begins as a discussion about the quality of the painting that Serge has purchased quickly devolves into petty jabs and personal attacks, the three men border on destroying their friendships.

Broadway’s Mandy Gonzalez LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
Broadway is in the house at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts with a Fearless live concert performance by Broadway star, Mandy Gonzalez!
"The Spitfire Grill" and Caitlin Geisser Return To Their Roots
“I saw something in her that you rarely come across,” recalled Ted Wioncek III, Artistic Director at Eagle Theatre in Hammonton. “She’s more than wise beyond her years; I believe she’s going to be a game-changer and a trendsetter for this art form.”
Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
Jennifer Fawcett’s new play centers around a mother in a kitchen, doing something countless people across America will take part in over the upcoming holiday season: making an apple pie.
See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
Leapin’ Lizards! Annie’s finally made it to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, and it stars Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as Miss Hannigan!

Event calendar
Saturday, Nov 17, 2018


THE GAY BLADES @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:30pm

HERMAN'S HERMITS STARRING PETER NOONE & THE BUCKINGHAMS @ Bergen Performing Arts Center (bergenPAC), Englewood - 8:00pm

Nelson Riveros Trio: “The Latin Side of Wes Montgomery” @ Englewood Public Library, Englewood - 7:00pm

Hawaiian Music and Hula @ 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing, Ewing - 8:00pm

Pop 2000 Tour @ iPlay America, Freehold - 7:00pm

THE MACHINE PERFORMS PINK FLOYD @ The Strand Theater, Lakewood - 8:00pm


Todd Barry at SOPAC @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 8:00pm

Swamp Boogie Trio @ Lizzie Rose Music Room, Tuckerton - 7:30pm


Annie @ Broad Street United Methodist Church, Burlington - 8:00pm

An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 3:00pm and 7:30pm

Annie @ Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal Park - 2:00pm and 8:00pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 8:00pm

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 8:00pm

Billy Bishop Goes to War @ Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum, Morristown - 2:00pm

Kiss Me Kate @ Broadway Theatre of Pitman, Pitman - 2:00pm and 8:00pm

Phoenix Productions Presents: The Hunchback of Notre Dame @ Count Basie Center For The Arts, Red Bank - 8:00pm

Enchanted April @ The Summit Playhouse, Summit - 8:00pm

Heathers, The Musical High School Edition @ Pebble Players, Oakes Center, Summit - 7:30pm

Junie B. Jones The Musical at Black Box PAC @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 11:00am

Into the Woods @ Studio Playhouse Upper Montclair, Upper Montclair - 8:00pm

The Drowsy Chaperone @ Lauren K. Woods Theatre at Monmouth University, West Long Branch - 8:00pm


Todd Barry at SOPAC @ South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC), South Orange - 8:00pm


BALLET FOLKLORICO DE MEXICO @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm


ROALD DAHL’S WILLY WONKA JR. @ Ridgewood Ave School Theater, Glen Ridge - 1:00pm and 7:00pm


Mainebiz Health Care Forum @ Mainebiz Health Care Forum, Newyork - 8:00pm

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