Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden
in a scene from The Opponent
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Numerous plays, movies, and other assorted media have detailed the virtues and pitfalls of sports: coaches leading their teams to victory, marginalized athletes finding camaraderie on the field, men exploring their sexuality in the locker room. However, The Opponent, Brett Neveu’s new play making its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters, starkly contrasts these tales of teamwork, empowerment, and fraternity. In the brash and violent world of heavyweight boxing, it is every man for himself. Despite its meandering plot development, Neveu’s drama packs a punch, revealing the bitter, dog-eat-dog world of professional fighting.
The Opponent marks the third New York transfer from Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre. Under the artistic direction of Kirsten Fitzgerald, the fledgling company previously mounted Tracy Letts’ Bug and Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theatre. Despite its flaws, this new production has proven A Red Orchid to be a veritable contender in the equally competitive New York theater world.
The two-character play charts the relationship between heavyweight up-and-comer Donell Fuseles and his fading coach Tremont “Tre” Billiford through a pivotal fight in the Donell’s career. In the confines of Tre’s dilapidated Lafayette, Louisiana, training gym, the two share their unique desires for success, material wealth, and happiness. While Donell eagerly gears up to dethrone the heavyweight champion Jasper Dennis, the defeated Tre tries to live vicariously through his student. Unfortunately, as Acts I and II take place five years apart, all of the truly exciting events – the important fight, Donell’s major career moves, Tre’s lapse into senility, et al – take place during the intermission’s elapsed time.
After excessive exposition, The Opponent’s action begins to pick up towards the end of Act I when Donell shares his twisted goal: “Jasper Dennis is gonna fall and it’ll be me who does it…me takin’ those dreams of his.” The young boxer’s desire for a “family,” a “house,” and “four cars” depends not only on his win, but also on Jasper’s loss. Conversely, the faltering Tre struggles to hold onto his protégé, having recently lost him to a higher profile manager. Using the boxing ring as a microcosm of real-world power struggles, Neveu communicates the depressing fact that a one man’s success necessarily comes at the expense of others.
Fortunately, Karen Kessler’s brutally naturalistic direction keeps Neveu’s wandering plot and circuitous dialogue engaging. Thanks to her careful and varied staging, the somewhat sparse conflict sizzles within the bounds of set designer Joey Wade’s battered gym. The coach and his mentor circle the edges of the rickety boxing ring, going head-to-head in a blue-collar, verbal sparring match; their blunt, cutting lines weave seamlessly through John Tovar’s visceral fight choreography sequences.
Kamal Angelo Bolden’s Donell appears onstage as a volatile loose cannon, taking control of the ring with his raw power and explosive ego. Conversely, Guy Van Swearingen’s determined yet delusional Tre earns all of the sympathy points. Sporting startlingly authentic Louisiana dialects, the two spit out Neveu’s faithful vernacular flawlessly as they beat each other down with escalating physical and emotional blows.
As the two approach simultaneous KOs, The Opponent’s drama finally becomes interesting. Neveu slowly reveals his characters’ dreams for lavish houses, souped-up cars, and familial bliss as futile ventures. Instead, physical wounds, emotional scars, and endless disappointments endure as a fighter’s legacy.
The Opponent (through September 7, 2014)
A Red Orchid NYC in association with Bisno Productions
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission