“Requiem for a Heavyweight” is a play dancing in a clinch with its ghost from Playhouse 90.
The production by the Grove Theatre Company in Garden Grove jabs and throws a few uppercuts that do manage to buckle your legs--but there’s no knockdown.
When Rod Serling wrote this theatrical adaptation of his 1956 teleplay about a washed-up fighter and his corrupt manager, he added a darker ending. Otherwise, this play repeats the plot immortalized by Jack Palance and Keenan Wynn on that famous live CBS broadcast.
Serling told this reviewer in the late ‘60s that he wanted “Requiem for a Heavyweight” to be his ticket to Broadway. But he died in 1975 without ever having seen the play produced on a stage.
“Requiem” made it to Broadway in 1985 where, despite a Tony-nominated performance by John Lithgow as the boxer, it bombed, closing after 3 days.
Today, the play is mostly a curiosity because of its lineage. Its story of betrayal and redemption is not dated but its devices creak a lot. And the Grove’s staging, by company director Thomas F. Bradac, tends to the melodramatic. The thugs and hustlers are too cartoony and Daniel Bryan Cartmell’s performance as the dishonest manager, Maish Resnick, is stridently off-key. Resnick’s villainy should be engrossing, not exasperating.
As the over-the-hill big lug, Harlan (Mountain) McClintock, the heavyweight who came “that close” to winning the title, Jim Boeke is quite affecting and credibly mush-mouthed from “18 years of cuts” in the ring. Makeup designer Gary Christensen has given Boeke a twisted eye, ear and nose job that makes you flinch.
Boeke’s tentative scenes with the employment officer (Marianne Ludwig) who tries to help him are genuinely touching. On the other hand, Boeke looks too old for the role (toll of beatings notwithstanding), and there’s a glazed, puppy-dog side to his sweetness that too often suggests Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” instead of a caged fighter, forced to quit the ring to save his eyesight.
Like Brando’s in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” this is a role that will seem forever the property of its originator, Palance (even though Anthony Quinn gave a strong performance in Columbia’s 1962 movie, in which Jackie Gleason played the manager). Still, Boeke’s exit at the Gem Theatre--to save his unworthy manager’s scalp, he leaves to fight a humiliating wrestling match in coonskin cap and mountain man cape--is a raw, redeeming moment.
There is a flawless performance from Ree Johnson as a loyal and burnished ring handler. Johnson’s dexterity and stamp of authenticity, including a comical turn as an indecisive card player, is the classiest portrayal in the show.
Physically, the production is on the dank and austere side. The costumes (by Karen Weller) and the set design (Gil Morales) are unnecessarily drab. Wouldn’t the characters change clothes once in a while?
A maw of black shrouds scenes that alternate among a boxing arena dressing room, a bar, a hotel room and the streets of New York. If ever a production needed texture and flavor in its design scheme, this is it.
A boxing ring-shaped platform is a nice idea, but why does the production open with the protagonist taking blows in the ring from an invisible opponent? This is not the time for an abstraction. This “Requiem” needs a few more smelling salts, a little less shouting and a little more passion.
“Requiem for a Heavyweight” by Rod Serling continues at the Gem Theatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. with a 3 p.m. performance April 9 and 7:30 performances March 26, April 2 and April 15. Ends April 15. Tickets: $13 to $17. Information: (714) 636-7213.