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'Topdog/Underdog' is not your typical sibling rivalry

The Huntington's upcoming production explores the complicated relationship between two brothers with very telling names.

What if your entire life was a long con? Or a series of small cons, within a long con? What if the con man was your brother? What if he was you?

The Huntington Theatre’s presentation of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog” explores the complexities of trust and dependency in the relationship between two brothers, Lincoln and Booth. And no, their names aren’t merely coincidence.

The Billy Porter-directed production debuts March 10, at Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre, where the two-man comic-drama touches on issues of race, poverty, abandonment and blame with humor and suspense. We chat with star Matthew J. Harris, who will play younger sibling Booth, a hustler who finds himself sharing a room with his big brother, who unironically works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonate at a local arcade.

Booth and Lincoln come from a troubled background, dabbling in petty theft and crime. Do you think that makes their sibling relationship any less relatable to the public? To you?

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The play takes on a lot of extremes in how the characters speak to each other and the things that they do. But I’m hoping it’s not just an impressive night of theater to people; I hope they actually do find what the characters are dealing with to be universal in a fundamental way and that they can viscerally feel what they’re going through.

For me, something I can relate to is that I’m a younger brother, too. I identify with the feeling of having to prove something. It’s not just my family dynamic, it stretches to school and college, too. I think [Booth] always feels like he’s trying to prove something. I think if Booth could be a winner if he didn’t let his faults get the best of him.

Do you think Booth is a flawed character, or just one waiting to grow up?

His faults are exaggerated [in the context of the brothers’ relationship], but I think that goes for anyone. Every day can be a fight. That’s the tragedy of my character. He could come out on top, but he always loses that fight. I think for some people, if you beat that part of yourself [down], it stays down, but [Booth] keeps coming up for another round.

How would you describe the relationship between the brothers in the context of this show? Who is the top dog and who is the under dog? And do those roles ever flip?

I think Booth is just really in competition with himself. His brother is just the other person in the play. I think there’s an assumption that Booth is the underdog, but I was surprised, because I didn’t think his being the little brother automatically made him the underdog. I think they have a competitive relationship and insult the s—t out of each other.

But they complement each other a lot, too. They obviously love each other. It’s just easier to say Booth is higher strung and since he’s the little brother, he wants to learn something from Lincoln. But then Booth has the apartment [where Lincoln boards], so it seems to me that he has something over him, too.

If you go:

March 10-April 9
Avenue of the Arts/BU Theatre
264 Huntington Ave.
Starting at $25, huntingtontheatre.org

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