The lore of Three Card Monte and Dime Museums share the stage in Suzan-Lori Parks Pulitzer Prize winning play “Topdog/Underdog” at New York City’s Ambassador Theater.
Gambling, cheating, dime museums, and other “allied arts” of conjuring are especially well represented in the current magic related plays being offered on Broadway. Ricky Jays’ show, “On the Stem,” which he both wrote and appears in, has perhaps been the most visible. MagicTimes found that Mr. Jay, as well as Michael Weber, both contributed to the production of another current Broadway offering, the Pulitzer Prize winning play “Topdog/Underdog,” written by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the Ambassador Theater on West 49th Street in Manhattan.
Publicity for the show informs the public that the George Wolfe directed vehicle has references to dime museums and Three Card Monte. Magicians and students of gambling will be interested to know that a series of illustrations purporting to be the “how to” of operating the Monte con appear in the program. A note from Parks accompanying the program illustrations explains that her education into the Monte moves came about through her husband Paul and their chance encounter with a crew working The Three Shell Game on Canal St. Her husband Paul, it seems, had some familiarity with Monte, a “game” with much in common with the shell game. During Pauls’ days playing with the Muddy Waters Blues Band he would hustle Three Card Monte between sets, “just for fun.” Suzan-Lori Parks states that they went home, he sat her down, and Paul showed her how to throw the cards.
As the play unfolds we learn there is much more to Monte than the mere toss of the cards. Of the two characters in “Topdog/Underdog,” one has turned his back on the street hustle con and now works in a contemporary dime museum as an Abe Lincoln imitator in a dunk tank. This character had previously been a very successful Monte operator who has “gone straight.” The other character, his brother, misguidedly wants to improve the quality of his life by becoming a Monte man and presses his brother to teach him the tricks of the trade, with deplorable results.
Warning: Any ill-advised person attempting to set up a Three Card Monte enterprise based on what they may learn from “Topdog/Underdog” and the program illustrations, would soon feel “the heat” in more ways than one. To paraphrase an old magic homily, this show is an entertainment, not an education.
The show which just received two 2002 Tony Award nominations (Best Play amd Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play) is scheduled to close on August 11, 2002.
—Richard Steven Cohn
Richard Steven Cohn has written for Genii, Magicol, M.U.M., The Yankee Collector, MAGIC, as well as magic themed articles for Brooklyn Bridge Magazine and Stagebill. He is a magical consultant for television and theater and performs both as a single and with his wife Alexandra.