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By Daryl H. Miller – June 4, 2007

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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