STAGE REVIEW : Strong Cast Packs Punch in Gritty, Humorous 'Champ'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do you do when there's a thick wall between you and hope? When you're Billy Ray Hungree, you try to punch your way through. But, as the opening rap soundtrack in West Coast Ensemble's production of Michael Kassin's "Brother Champ" screams in pain, "Time is running out! Run. . . !" Billy Ray runs--and fights--and almost makes it.

There just isn't enough time.

We never meet Billy Ray. We do find out that he killed a pimp when he was 15, that the South Carolina correctional facility where he was sent doesn't put a dent in his anger. We also learn about the warden, a man who likes to bask in reflected glory. He lets Billy Ray out on furlough to work his way up in the amateur fight game, but Billy Ray folds on his Olympic trial, and now he's found hanging in his cell.

Billy Ray's death is announced early on in Kassin's theatrical and gripping drama, but we learn important things about him from his friends, some of the members of the "Federation of United Kinsmen," prisoners drawn together, in league with the warden, to protect and nurture Billy Ray.

Jim Barbaley's realistic social club set design, in the process of renovation, is a perfect frame for this meeting, just as run-down as the time bomb ticking inside each of them, and just as unfinished as the story they're going to tell to the TV reporter who's coming to find out why Billy Ray killed himself. Or did he?

The friends, all out on parole, don't want to go back, so it's the warden's story they're going to run. And they're going to run it by acting out the events. There's the rub. Who's going to play whom? How close are they going to get to the truth? It turns out Kassin's parable has little to do with facts and a lot to do with honesty, and self-respect and dignity and what makes a man a man.

"Brother Champ" also says a good bit about redemption, particularly for Ivan, who insists he's the only one who can play Billy Ray in their little psychodrama. Ivan is played like a coiled rattler by Cameron Arnett, gritty and glistening with anger, yet vulnerable as he insists: "I never stole anybody's hope. Hope's all we got."

The entire cast is gritty under the tense, rich direction of Patrick Pankhurst, but he also lets their bitter humor shine through. Richard Henry (with a slight stammer as rapist Benjamin), Mike Jefferson (self-assured homosexual Crawford), Oscar Jordan (drug dealer C.J.), Desi Bullock (the often frightening Muslim Burse) and Ron Dorn, as the buppie TV reporter who grows to their size, even through his fear--it's a finely honed cast that isn't afraid of laying it on the line.

"Brother Champ," West Coast Ensemble, 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 6. $15; (213) 871-8673. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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