With the brooding melodrama of an Edward Hopper painting, Rod Serling’s 1956 teleplay has become a standard of post–WWII angst, which presented the flip side of American optimism in the mid-20th century. In gritty, poetic language worthy of Eugene O’Neill, Serling creates a testosterone-driven world of desperation and failure that shadows the shadowy world of prize fighting.
Once-successful promoter Maishe Resnick (Ken Butler) sinks to betting against his own aging “boy” boxer, Mountain McClintock (Bob Rusch), sending both into financial and emotional tailspins. Social worker Grace Miller (Tonja Kahlens) intervenes and becomes entangled with McClintock, setting off a power struggle with Resnick. Under Eric Johnson’s shamelessly heavy-handed yet effective direction, the cast provide scene-chewing performances that somehow fit perfectly into Serling’s breast-beating play. Rusch fills every moment of his performance as the big-lug boxer with Serling’s bathos — excruciating and sparkling with life. The design team combines to create the dark Hopper world with enormous skill in this tiny theater.
SkyPilot Theatre Company at T.U. STUDIOS, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru June 24. (800) 838-3006. (Tom Provenzano)
Feeling every punch he takes
“Requiem for a Heavyweight” is the “Death of a Salesman” of the prizefighting world, as powerful today as when the Rod Serling teleplay first aired in 1956.
At a tiny North Hollywood theater, Bob Rusch delivers a performance that in every way lives up to the heavyweight’s nickname: “Mountain.” Even when released from boxing gloves, Rusch’s hands remain curled into fists, indicating the many years they’ve spent inside the leather. Years back, Mountain was a serious title contender, but after 111 fights, he’s on the ropes.
“What did I do wrong?” he asks after losing his latest bout. “You aged,” his manager replies.
Thereafter, the boxer walks around with the world’s weight slumping his shoulders. But on those rare occasions when he rises to his full height, watch out, because he’s still got some fight left in him. Ken Butler, as the manager, maintains a hard-bitten exterior that is meant to hide guilt (he’s betrayed Mountain) and fear (he faces imminent ruin).
Worry nevertheless sneaks past the edges of Butler’s iron mask, letting us know the guy’s not a total monster, at least. When the emotions finally break loose, the audience is seated close enough to see tears welling in the actor’s eyes. (Trivia alert: Butler happens to have been a producer of a 1985 Broadway “Requiem” starring John Lithgow.)
The set moodily evokes the ’50s, plywood-thin and pretty much two-dimensional. Even so, the production, tautly directed by Eric Johnson, is sending theatergoers out the doors with telltale wetness on their cheeks.
“Requiem for a Heavyweight,” T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 24. $15. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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