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‘Corner’s’ hits outscore misses

Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- Boxing has long served as a metaphor for theater. Bertolt Brecht, the grand innovator of 20th century political drama, envisioned spectators sitting around the stage puffing on cigars as they watched characters attempting to knock each other out with contrasting viewpoints.

“In This Corner” -- Steven Drukman’s play about the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis, premiering here at the Old Globe -- follows Brecht’s lead and literally transforms the stage into a boxing ring. The result is a swinging if not entirely walloping way to start the theater’s new regime, led by CEO/Executive Producer Louis G. Spisto, now that Jack O’Brien has assumed the title of artistic director emeritus.

In telling the epic tale of Louis’ heroic rise and sputtering post-retirement fall, the playwright throws jab after jab of sociopolitical interpretation. We learn about Louis’ origins in the red clay mountains of Alabama, the racial obstacles he encountered throughout his career even after his victories transformed him into a rousing national symbol, and his middle-aged descent into drugs, debt and mental illness.

But the drama, which shifts back and forth in a span that runs from 1930 to 1970, never scores an emotional knockout. And unfortunately, Louis the man remains little more than a heavily annotated Wikipedia entry.

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Still, the production, kinetically directed by Ethan McSweeny, keeps the intellectual bob-and-weave lively. A prizefight atmosphere dominates even when the only thing happening is an expository swirl of reporters, managers, announcers and trainers.

Drukman may not have anything revelatory to say, but he treats the slangy speech of each character as though it were part of a hip-hop poetry slam. This can grow tedious at times. But McSweeny ingeniously converts the old-school word-spinning into modern-day theatrical rhythm.

A ring war

At the center of the story are the bouts between Louis (Dion Graham) and his formidable German opponent, Max Schmeling (Rufus Collins), who had the misfortune of being a star athlete during the Nazi era. The Third Reich had a vested interest in Schmeling’s success. Aryan superiority was on the line. Drukman spells the point out by having Hitler (T. Ryder Smith, in one of his many roles) make a cameo in which he menacingly advises Schmeling to be a good son of the Fatherland.

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Of course, Louis understood as well as anyone the crushing weight of race. Nicknamed “the Brown Bomber,” he was always bumping up against bigotry and its burdensome reverse -- a desire to see him as a transcendent example.

The play introduces Louis as a shy young man with a bad stammer who wants to please his mother and lead a peaceful life as a musician. A team of boxing king-makers, however, decides he’s the next champ.

Before they even lay eyes on his hulking frame, the members of this group are determined to manufacture a new pugilist prince. And why not, since they have all the bases covered? There’s a sportswriter to supply the buzzwords and hype, an announcer to rev up the crowds and a trainer to teach all the necessary moves. The only thing missing is a “great villain to come along and oppose him,” and the Nazis take care of that by allowing Schmeling to fight abroad.

Though reluctant at first, Louis turns out to be easy to mold. He’s repeatedly warned by his no-nonsense trainer, Blackburn (a solid Al White), to follow a number of rules. He shouldn’t speak in public, he shouldn’t have his picture taken with a white woman, he should never go into a nightclub alone, and he should never gloat over a fallen white opponent if he wants whites to keep attending his fights. These were mistakes that Louis’ openly contemptuous predecessor Jack Johnson made, and Blackburn vows that “the last smile is gonna be ours.”

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Most important, he reminds Louis of his ABC mantra: “Always Be Clean.” This becomes increasingly hard as the years go by and the boxer’s dwindling celebrity proves a weak analgesic for the pain of a life whose only true freedom was in the ring.

Linked by history

Not surprisingly, the man who understands Louis’ plight best isn’t his psychiatrist but Schmeling, who has flourished as a businessman in Hamburg after the war. Though their fates diverge widely, their histories intersect in crucial ways that extend beyond laying each other flat.

Graham and Collins are effective as the main combatants, but their roles have all the internal specificity of animated figures. Instead of nuance, Drukman bestows on them Significant Cultural Meaning, which would be fine if it were more organically earned.

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From the beginning, Graham emphasizes the heavy tread of Louis’ embattled spirit. There’s not much development in the characterization as written, and the performance mostly highlights the various notes of sadness. Still, the poignancy is genuine if a little static.

Collins, whose German accent seems as ostentatious as the fur coat he wears when he sweeps into Louis’ psych ward as an older man, certainly makes a vivid stand-in for Schmeling. But like Graham, all he can do is zero in on the softer aspects of his broadly conceived part.

The supporting cast has zestier material to work with. In darting from character to character, Smith, David Deblinger and especially Katie Barrett are allowed to gallop away with most of the fun, turning “shinola into Champagne,” to borrow period vernacular from one of the reporters in the play.

The production design, dominated by Lee Savage’s boxing ring set, is crackling good across the board. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting helps create the excitement of a much-anticipated brawl, as does Lindsay Jones’ sound design, which cleverly layers radio play-by-play with booming microphone commentary.

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McSweeny’s direction finds the energetic soul of Drukman’s drama, which may not be one for the ages but definitely provides a brisk theatrical workout for actors and audience alike.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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‘In This Corner’

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Where: Cassius Carter Centre Stage, the Old Globe, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 10

Price: $42 to $59

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Contact: (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org

Running time: 2 hours


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