Sucker Punch

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Editorial Review

Review: In ‘Sucker Punch’ at Studio Theatre, young actor packs a mighty wallop
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, March 6, 2012

When the blows start flying in Studio Theatre’s “Sucker Punch,” it’s the audience that sees stars. In this case, that means the powerhouse visages of Emmanuel Brown and, even more electrifyingly, Sheldon Best, as British prizefighters of West Indian descent, bobbing and weaving and jabbing their way out of hard times in Margaret Thatcher’s racially charged London.

Roy Williams’s gritty though less than revelatory drama offers the oldest of boxing narratives: the story of guys who use their fists to combat the lives of privation that might otherwise have been their destinies. Staying true to the formula almost to the end, “Sucker Punch” tips its gloves to other plays and films set in the ring, such as “The Great White Hope” or “Rocky,” to summon a thematic and cinematic palette that theatergoers won’t fail to recognize.

Your solar plexus, almost from the start, tells you what you are in store for in this American premiere, whether it concerns the interlocking fates of Brown’s resentful Troy and Best’s sunnier Leon, or of the frowned-upon romance between Leon and Becky (Dana Levanovsky), daughter of Leon’s white trainer, Charlie (Sean Gormley). (The minor character of a craven opposing manager, played by Lance Coadie Williams, comes close to caricature.) The racial animosities in London’s working-class enclaves of the 1980s are also presented with a gloves-off rawness that is no longer shocking to American audiences, which are steeped in the history of our shameful racial past.

Yet in director Leah C. Gardiner’s propulsive and athletic handling, the depictions of the matches themselves — choreographed by Rick Sordelet and lighted by Brian MacDevitt — supply the piece with its required wallop. You can overlook the script’s hewing to the genre’s conventions and luxuriate in the production’s blunt-force theatricality.

Nowhere does this emanate more satisfyingly than from the six-pack gut of Best, a galvanizing merger of actor and role if there ever were one. His Leon is the play’s central figure, a young man of bountiful potential as a welterweight boxer, but who can’t catch a break from the white world, or the black. Charlie, an old-school trainer with a drinking habit and a sky-high stack of bills, is not shy about his bigoted rationale for not warming up to the charismatic kid he’s drilling into shape. At the same time, Troy, Leon’s mate from their thuggish days shoplifting in hardscrabble London neighborhoods, witheringly berates Leon for falling so compliantly under the spell of a white trainer — and a white girlfriend.

Gormley and Levanovsky offer solid turns as a boxing pro verging on burnout and his feisty prep-school daughter. (I should point out that Levanovsky was a student of mine a few years ago, at George Washington University.)

“Sucker Punch” chronicles the challenges Leon faces as he pursues boxing glory while attempting the impossible task of keeping faith with Troy and Charlie. Best proves expert at embodying the character’s charm and immaturity, and the sense that beyond another title belt, the prize he yearns for most is the replacement of his parasitic father (the excellent Michael Rogers) by someone like Charlie.

Set primarily in Charlie’s squalid South London gym, the drama is punctuated by sequences in the ring that are narrated by Leon. At center stage in the comfortably compact Mead Theatre is a tiled square of floor, which functions as Charlie’s ring and those of the various venues in which Leon fights. At key moments, Daniel Conway’s set cleverly supports the illusion that ringside spectators are surrounding the action.

Leon’s recounting of his bouts, along with the staging of two of them, constitute some of the most convincing and imaginatively rendered prizefighting you’ll come across in a theater. In concert with sound designer Lindsay Jones, Sordelet and Gardiner find ways to convey the impact of a hook or uppercut without a single punch being landed. (In an apparent homage to “Raging Bull,” they at one point shift the throwing of fists to a liquid slo-mo.)

Best, Brown and a third actor taking part in the fighting, Lucas Beck — playing a preening white boxer with a heart filled with hate — are in amazing shape. After Best completes a scene in which he speechifies while skipping rope, you might find yourself sympathetically checking your pulse.

Williams reminds us throughout the 100 minutes of “Sucker Punch” that a bigger fight is brewing outside the gym in response to what is seen in the streets as Thatcher’s pugilistic tendencies: union-busting tactics and privatization schemes favoring the upper classes. In a poetic sense, Leon lives out a variation on the Thatcherite narrative, ascending to wealth and respect by the crushing of his fellow man. “What a feeling!” Best’s Leon gushes, reveling in the demolishing of one of his ring opponents.

Implicit in the play’s title, however, is the notion that such exhilaration can evaporate when one least expects it to. And so it is with “Sucker Punch,” whose tepid conclusion feels a bit hollow. The play doesn’t so much end as melt away. Perhaps in the wake of a performance as riveting as Best’s, you wish for a final moment that sizzles.

By Roy Williams. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner. Fight choreographer, Rick Sordelet; set, Daniel Conway; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; music and sound, Lindsay Jones; dramaturge, Adrien-Alice Hansel; voice and text, Ashley Smith. About 1 hour 40 minutes.

Preview: Hard-hitting drama from a nice bloke
By Nelson Pressley
Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

The moment Barack Obama locked up the Democratic nomination during the 2008 presidential campaign, British playwright Roy Williams - long acclaimed in the U.K. for his streetwise dramas of explosive youth - booked an airline ticket for New York. No matter the outcome, he had to be here for the election.

"Amazing," he says of the election night he spent in Greenwich Village and Times Square. Writing about his impressions for the Evening Standard newspaper, Williams declared, "This sows the seeds of a black Prime Minister."

Another prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is in the background of the 44-year-old playwright's "Sucker Punch," which begins performances Wednesday at Studio Theatre and marks Williams's U.S. premiere.

"She's a huge presence," Williams says of Thatcher's role in his play. Not that the Iron Lady is a character in "Sucker Punch," which premiered at London's Royal Court in 2010. She's mentioned only briefly in the drama, which focuses on two black friends whose boxing careers (and Britain's since-repealed sus laws - stop-and-searches akin to racial profiling) put them on a collision course. But England's recent conservative turn reminded Williams of the Thatcher years that his "Sucker Punch" characters are slugging through.

"Like now, there was a recession," Williams says at Studio, wrapping up a two-week visit to work with the cast. "Cuts had to be made. People lost their jobs. High unemployment. So to a lot of people like myself, she wasn't a very popular prime minister."

The riots that spread across England last year suggested that the parallels Williams feared were playing out. "Even though [current P.M.] David Cameron is saying we're all in this together," Williams says, "the cuts are severely affecting guess who? The people at the bottom."

Translating the guts of "Sucker Punch" doesn't seem to be an issue, then, even if some of the slangy language is being amended for American ears. ("You facety little rass," goes one insult between Leon and Troy, the buddies who gradually turn on each other.) But even Williams was skeptical of the plot's viability over here until the ensemble told him: "Police getting on black youths? Tell us something we don't know."

Williams's reputation rests on the dramas he's fashioned for nearly two decades of steady writing for such lofty theatrical addresses as the Royal Court, the National, Tricycle and the Royal Shakespeare Company. "White, middle-class audiences have lapped up playwright Roy Williams' dissections of multiracial London," read a 2007 Guardian headline, summing up much of the playwright's career.

The plays are lively, but they can be rough. In 2004, "Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads" pulled the lid off a cauldron of nationalism and racism; the context was an English soccer match against Germany and Enoch Powell's notoriously reactionary 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech. The 2007 "Days of Significance" reset Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" in war-torn Iraq and a binge-drinking England. When the RSC toured it two years later, an actor injured himself during a fight scene - a hazard that's quite real in the boxing world of "Sucker Punch."

"We've all taken our hits," laughs Sheldon Best, who plays Leon in the Studio production. (Sports frequently figure in Williams's work, though he categorizes himself as a fan, not a player.) Best and several other actors trained with boxers in New York prior to rehearsals here, being taught "everything from punching to how to put on the hand wraps, where our feet should be, how we move in the ring," Best says.

Given the pugnacious nature of his plays, Williams is surprisingly affable - quick to smile, easygoing in conversation. "I expected something completely different," says Emmanuel Brown, who plays Troy. "He's just like any cool dude - so calm. Good sense of humor."

"Sucker Punch" director Leah C. Gardiner, who was with Williams that giddy election night, has been a friend of the playwright's since they met during readings in New York about a decade ago.

She has lived in London, so "I did a really bad black Cockney accent. He laughed and said, 'An American who knows this world?' That's how we hit it off,"says Gardiner.

Williams was honored with the Order of the British Empire in 2008, and during a recent gathering Gardiner was trying to tease out details of the royal ceremony. But she says Williams kept excusing himself to monitor the Grammys. "I have to go see my girl Adele," he explained.

This is the first time Gardiner and Williams have worked together, though when Gardiner met with Studio Artistic Director David Muse, she thought she was being considered for "Time Stands Still" (the recently closed Donald Margulies drama - she was e-mailed the wrong script). Told that Muse had "Sucker Punch" in mind, Gardiner laughed and breezed through, having seen the 2011 Olivier Award best play nominee in multiple early drafts from her pal.

Perhaps it's the intense local concerns of Williams's plays that have made this American debut so belated. His career has certainly been on a smooth glide path since his emergence from a writing program at Rose Bruford College in 1996, when Williams sent his final project, "No Boys Cricket Club," to three theaters and heard back from them all. His subjects often draw from his working-class roots; his parents were Jamaican immigrants, though they divorced when Williams, the youngest of four children, was 2.

His father moved to the United States, and Williams finally met him a couple years ago in New York. "I wouldn't say we reconnected," Williams says. "But we've met."

That encounter will likely factor into the play he's writing for New York's Atlantic Theater Company, his first American commission. That work involves black perspectives from U.S. and U.K. angles, with Obama's presidency as some sort of foundation. Public and private histories will intersect.

"That's my experience," Williams says. "Things that happened 20, 30 years ago, things that were said and done, they carry weight. They still have an influence in people's lives." A teacher once told him, " 'No matter who you are, you should never underestimate the power of your actions, because they will ripple.' I've never forgotten that."

He hasn't figured out the plot of the new play; though he has been prolific, writing often takes Williams some time. Meanwhile he's eyeing the American presidential campaign and working on a screenplay of "Sucker Punch" for Britain's Film4 Productions.

"I'm always finding stories to tell," Williams says. "The world hasn't dried up yet."