Playbill Reader's Circle Selections for April

Playbill Reader's Circle Selections for April Two timely volumes inaugurate the Playbill Reader's Circle. Both are related to shows — a musical and a drama — opening on Broadway this month. To order either book, go to Playbill Store. Order either selection by April 25 and receive a FREE Official Opening Night Playbill of the associated show, a $10 value.
Topdog/Underdog and an illustrated Into the Woods.
Topdog/Underdog and an illustrated Into the Woods.

Two timely volumes inaugurate the Playbill Reader's Circle. Both are related to shows — a musical and a drama — opening on Broadway this month. To order either book, go to Playbill Store. Order either selection by April 25 and receive a FREE Official Opening Night Playbill of the associated show, a $10 value.

INTO THE WOODS: The Storybook

The first is Into the Woods — not a published version of the script, but a beautifully illustrated children’s book that returns the fairytales of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical to the pages of a storybook.

Author/illustrator Hudson Talbott closely follows the plot of the 1988 musical. Into the Woods was built on the notion that many of the best-known Grimm tales are actually just parts of a larger story, which is told at last in its entirety. Lapine and Sondheim wove together "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk" and other famous tales — as well as one they created — into a single epic quest.

At 91 pages, the book omits no plot twist. It is leavened by 70 painted and line-drawn illustrations that are, by turns, as slyly humorous, grotesque, pastoral, frightening and voluptuous as the show itself. The authors of the musical have said they were inspired by the theories of psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, who found that classic fairytales are stages where some of our deepest conflicts are worked out. Talbott appears to have taken his cue from that, and produced illustrations filled with beauty, mystery and intriguing symbolism. Who will want this visit to the land of counterpane? Lovers of folktales and classic fairytales. Parents who are contemplating taking their kids to the show. This book, plus the original cast album, will make a great preparation for the intricacies of the plot. Also: For collectors of Sondheimania, who must possess everything Steve-related, this is a potential collector's item.

> TOPDOG/UNDERDOG

The second selection is the published playscript of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, a two-character drama that pits brother against brother in a battle, rooted in childhood, over who is who in the play’s title.

The setting is simple, two African-American brothers — one named Lincoln, one named Booth — uneasily share a run-down apartment where they spend each evening having dinner, drinking and spinning pipe dreams. The older brother, Lincoln, is a former Three-Card Monte con man who has given up the shill and now works in a carnival sideshow as Abraham Lincoln, allowing patrons, for a fee, to reenact the assassination.

His brother Booth is tired of penny-ante jobs and wants to acquire Lincoln’s skill at the card scam so he make enough money to impress his indifferent girlfriend.

The play is also about brothers in the other sense of the word: about self destructive competition that plagues some African-American men for whom poverty is inescapable and self-respect difficult to earn — men for whom a badly timed "dis" can be reason for murder. The play's bigger theme deals with the American obsession with money and fame as the only true measures of self-worth.

Parks employs a more naturalistic style than in most of her previous plays, including Venus and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. Her earlier, experimental work, The America Play, also dealt with the ritual assassination of a black Lincoln.

In its structure, Topdog/Underdog most recalls Strindberg’s The Stronger, another two-hander that also leaves audiences to decide which of the two is the title character after all. Parks' drama also resonates with Sam Shepard’s True West and Arthur Miller’s The Price, also about battling brothers.

Who will want this murderous tale of mounting sibling rivalry? Folks considering going to see the show and unwilling to trust critics’ summaries. Folks who have seen the show and want to see how it was put together. Fans of modern drama. Fans of Suzan-Lori Parks. Actors looking for taut, contemporary scene work.