“Requiem for a Heavyweight” is a play dancing in a clinch with its ghost from “Playhouse 90.”
The production by the Grove Theater Company jabs and throws a few uppercuts that do manage to buckle your legs--but there’s no knockdown at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove.
Rod Serling’s theatrical adaptation of his 1956 “Playhouse 90" classic about a washed-up fighter and his corrupt manager adds a darker ending to the seminal teleplay. Otherwise, the stage version repeats the plot made famous by Jack Palance and Keenan Wynn on that famous live CBS broadcast the night of Oct. 11, 1956.
Serling told this reviewer in the late ‘60s that he wanted “Requiem for a Heavyweight” to be his introduction to Broadway. He died in 1975 and didn’t live to see “Requiem” ever produced on a stage. (Or its failure on Broadway in 1985, where, despite a Tony-nominated performance by John Lithgow as the boxer, the play bombed and closed after three days).
The play today is only 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 director Thomas F. Bradac, tends to the melodramatic. The thugs and hustlers are too cartoony and Daniel Bryan Cartmell’s performance as the hero’s dishonest manager Maish Resnick is stridently off key. The manager’s villainy should be engrossing, not exasperating.
As the titled over-the-hill big lug, Harlan (Mountain) McClintock, the heavyweight who came “that close” to winning the title, actor 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 lady employment officer (Marianne Ludwig) who tries to help him are genuinely touching. On the other hand, Boeke looks too old for the role (the toll of beatings on the character notwithstanding), and there’s a glazed, puppy-dog side to Boeke’s sweetness that too often suggests Lenny from “Of Mice and Men” instead of this caged fighter forced to quit the ring to save his eyesight.
Like Brando’s in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” this is indeed a role that will seem forever the property of Jack Palance’s bloody figure (with apologies to Anthony Quinn’s strong performance in Columbia’s 1962 movie, co-starring Jackie Gleason as the manager). But Boeke’s fade-out at the Gem Theater, as he leaves to fight a humiliating wrestling match in coonskin cap and mountain man cape in order to save his unworthy manager’s scalp, is a raw, redeeming moment.
There’s a flawless performance from Ree Johnson’s loyal and burnished ring handler. Johnson’s dexterity and stamp of authenticity, including a comical turn as an indecisive card player, is the class portrayal of 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 blackness 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’s design scheme needed texture and flavor, this is it.
A boxing ring-shaped platform is a nice idea, but why does the protagonist open the play taking blows in the ring from an invisible opponent? This is not the time for an abstraction. The production needs a few more smelling salts, a little less shouting, and a little more passion.
At 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. performance April 9 and 7:30 performances March 26, April 2, through and April 15. Ends April 15. Tickets: $13-$17; (714) 636-7213.