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.
Acclaimed fight director Rick Sordelet teaches actors Lucas Beck and Sheldon Best how to fight in this production of "Sucker Punch," which looks at the British race riots in the 1980s.
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.