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. Through April 8 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.