Monday, December 3, 2018

Halves: Man in the Ring and The Lifespan of a Fact

Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson in Michael Cristofer's Man in the Ring. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Cristofer’s new play Man in the Ring, receiving its premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre, is the biography of Emile Griffith, the middleweight boxing champ of the late fifties and sixties, born on St. Thomas. It’s a fascinating story about a man whose life is haunted by demons – of Benny “Kid” Paret, who died as a result of the Griffith’s last victory over him in the ring, and, in Cristofer’s portrait, of his bisexuality. (Cristofer recreates the vicious beating Griffith received outside a gay bar in 1992.) Cristofer’s dramatic strategy is to tell it in flashback through the point of view of an aging Emile (John Douglas Thompson), living in New York with Luis (Victor Almanzar), a younger man who nurses him through his struggles with dementia pugilistica.

Michael Greif has given the work an exciting production, gracefully staged and visually beautiful. David Zinn designed the set, which is delineated at the wings by staggered fire-escape balconies and upstage by a curved cyclorama on which Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully’s projections evoke the period urban feel as well as echoing key moments in the play, Brechtian style. Zinn relies on muted colors, blacks and browns and sepias, while Emilio Sosa’s costumes provide exotic flashes of color that link back to Emile’s island birthplace. The brilliant lighting design is by Ben Stanton, who takes a leaf from Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman’s book: blinding, crackling flashbulbs heighten the fight scenes. Matt Tierney created the vibrant sound design, and Michael McElroy arranged the music, Caribbean hymns and folk songs that, like the titles, have a Brechtian function. The supporting cast is flawless; the standout performances are by the charismatic Kyle Vincent Terry as young Emile, Almanzar as both Luis (who was Griffith’s adopted son) and a male lover, and Sean Boyce Johnson as Benny Paret, but Starla Benford as Emile’s mother, Emelda, and Gordon Clapp as his manager, Howie Albert, are also memorable. Towering above them is the majestic John Douglas Thompson. His portrayal of the physiologically and psychically impaired Griffith, who stumbles through the play like a wounded colossus, howling like Lear against the immovable universe, is surely one of the highlights of the theatrical season, here or anywhere.

Unfortunately, staggering around the stage is mostly what Thompson gets to do throughout act one. Cristofer sets up the dramatic framework – Emile’s fraught journey through his past, as he wanders in and out of present-day reality – and then feels he has to remind us of it in every scene. The older Emile is continually shadowing the younger one, not only interacting with him (which is very effective) but either repeating young Emile’s lines or speaking them along with him. This doubling gets very tiresome, and you feel the playwright doesn’t trust the audience to retain the structure for five minutes at a stretch. The first act is naggingly repetitive, even apart from the echo effect; Cristofer feeds us the same lines three, four, five times, even the simplest ones. Thompson’s Emile can’t just observe, “He gone”; he has to say, “He gone. He gone. He gone, gone, gone.” Is Cristofer going for some kind of poetic-expressionistic effect? He’s the wrong playwright for it; his diction is way too banal. (The highest he reaches is “Time is longer than a rope.”) The first act has a powerful curtain, the felling of Paret in the ring, but the second-act dialogue keeps replaying it, and every time we hear it over again it undercuts the force of the original moment. I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in Clifford Odets’s great Golden Boy where the young fighter Joe Bonaparte finds out that the knockout blow he delivered his opponent, the Chocolate Drop, in the arena has ended his life, and all Joe says is “What will my father say when he heard I killed a man?” There’s no more convincing example of the less-is-more principle.

But if you stick with the play through the first act, the second act rewards your patience. Cristofer eases off on the doubling, and he gives us three extraordinary scenes. In the first, Howie puts young Emile through a series of low-key tests to affirm that the blows he’s taken to the head have jogged something loose – he can’t remember simple instructions, he’s forgotten how to change the time on a watch – and has to tell him that he’s through as a boxer. (This is Clapp’s finest moment.) The second is the scene where Luis brings Emile to meet Benny’s look-alike son (also played by Sean Boyce Johnson, who makes the two characters marvelously distinctive) and Emile, who has had nightmares all his life about killing Paret, tries to summon up the words to ask for forgiveness – really of Paret himself, since he gets confused and begins to think it’s his old opponent he’s addressing. And then there’s the final scene between Emile and Luis. These last two, which occur back to back, send seismic waves of emotion through the audience. I saw James Earl Jones in another boxing play, The Great White Hope, on Broadway when I was in college, and he was amazing (in a way that, unhappily, he couldn’t be in the misbegotten movie version). What Thompson does in these final minutes of Man in the Ring approaches Jones. During the curtain call, one of my fellow audience members kept shouting “Bravo!” until his voice started to go hoarse. I didn’t blame him.

 Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale in The Lifespan of a Fact. (Photo: Peter Cunningham)

The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, culled from a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, has a delicious set-up. The editor of a major Manhattan-based magazine (Cherry Jones) assigns a novice (Daniel Radcliffe) to fact-check a story by a distinguished but temperamental journalist (Bobby Cannavale) about the suicide of a young man in Las Vegas, and gives him the weekend to complete the assignment. But right out of the gate the fact-checker uncovers inconsistencies and inaccuracies; they pile up until his notes are many, many times longer than the story, and he winds up flying out to Vegas and camping on the writer’s doorstep in an effort to resolve the problems. (The two male characters, Jim and John, are based on the real-life Fingal and D’Agata.) The notion of an obsessive-compulsive fact-checker anxious to make good on his first real assignment running up against a writer with a short fuse who doesn’t mind playing fast and loose with the facts is hilarious, and for about the first half of Leigh Silverman’s skillful production the play – which runs for eighty-five minutes without intermission – is very entertaining. The three actors give deft, breezy performances, especially Radcliffe and Cannavale, who have the juicy roles and are an ideal match of opposites, the indefatigable nerd and the world-weary hipster. But if Man in the Ring picks up at the halfway point, The Lifespan of a Fact slides downhill. The playwrights make the classic mistake of thinking they’re writing an important commentary on contemporary journalistic practices instead of a farce, and their self-seriousness kills the show. What it doesn’t manage to do is kill the performances – or, consequently, the good humor of the audience. So, despite that second half, I left quite happy I’d come in the first place.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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