The Boxer is brilliant. The locally grown one-act play that charmed audiences at last summer's Festival of Independent Theatres is now at Dallas Children's Theater, with the same cast and an even more polished staging by Dallas writer-director Matt Lyle.
What a gem. In a lively 60 minutes, Lyle's darling comedy about a young woman masquerading as a man to train a bantam-weight prizefighter speaks volumes about life, love and the wonders of live theater. And it says everything without uttering a word.
Lyle and his young Bootstraps Comedy Theater players have created a newfangled take on an old-fashioned medium: silent film. An upstage movie screen flashes black and white title cards behind the live actors. Characters on the stage interact with characters in filmed sequences, a tricky bit of fancy footwork that's impeccably timed and hilarious.
They're pantomiming in the style of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd—rubbery knees, wide eyes, twitchy mouths, shrugged shoulders, exaggerated reactions. The Boxer pays affectionate tribute to all the silent greats. Pianist B. Wolf adds to the old-timey feel by playing a rinky-tink score full of cleverly cued references to "Eye of the Tiger" and "Thriller." Johnny Sequenzia handles mandolin, banjo and percussion.
The playwright's actress-wife Kim gets the lead as Velma, the Little Tramp-like ragamuffin forced to don men's clothes to land a job digging ditches. An accidental meeting with a hapless pugilist (Jeff Swearingen) leads Velma to take on the duties of trainer-manager for the fighter's big bout against the fearsome Bavarian Beast (Ben Bryant). The little boxer needs the winnings for his "sick ma," and he's so determined to earn the prize honestly, he even turns down an offer of more cash to take a dive. Thing is, he has no chance of taking down the hulking Beast in the ring. That is, unless Velma...
Lyle knows his silent movie formula backward and forward, working in stock characters such as the mean, mustachioed boss (Steve Jones), the "Goon" (Joel McDonald), the saucy barmaid (Jennifer Youle) and flirty dancing girls (Tara Christensen, Laurie Williamson). He gives us a drunk scene, a comic chase with rowboats and a gorilla, and the perfect twist at the end that makes Velma both hero and heroine and allows her boxer boy to believe he's a champ, if only briefly.
Laughs build on laughs as the physical comedy grows more complicated by the minute. These actors, particularly Kim Lyle, Swearingen and McDonald, are beautiful mimes—the hours it must have taken to work out their routines.
It's such a pleasure to see a piece of theater from artists who genuinely care about giving the audience a good time. There's a wholesome-yet-wistful sentimentality about this show that's missing from so many new plays. It has real family appeal.
As Velma falls for her skinny fighter, she dreams of revealing her real identity to him (a funny bit introduced by a quartet of flat-footed fairies), and we fall in love with both of them. We remember for ourselves that happy little twinge that comes from the first throes of romance.
Sigh, such sweet, sweet science.
On the other hand, Our Lady of 121st Street, now playing at Kitchen Dog Theater, is a play that could sour a person on live theater for life. New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis figured out his gimmick for "edgy" dramas years ago, and he's made his name on it. Here's how it goes: Take a bunch of "streetwise" types, throw them together in a contrived situation and let the F-bombs fly for several hours. No need for plot or character development. Just turn the air blue. Weave a religious reference into the title and you've got the typical re-Guirgis-stated play.
It worked for this writer with his first big number in 2001, Jesus Hopped the "A" Train (set in a prison). He repeated the set-up for 2003's Our Lady of 121st Street (a reunion at a funeral) and three years later for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (a trial). All were directed in their American premieres by Philip Seymour Hoffman at Manhattan's LAByrinth Theater Company. Risk Theatre Initiative here recently did The Last Days in performances that ran longer each night than the actual Last Supper. Pure hell, that one was. At least Our Lady gets its yelling and cursing out of the way well before midnight.
Guirgis loves him some pimps, hos and dirty priests, so he racks 'em up in Our Lady, set in a Spanish Harlem funeral parlor on the eve of the service for an alcoholic nun. Lights come up on a cop, Balthazar (Christopher Carlos), questioning a half-naked homeless addict named Victor (Ryan F. Johnson) about the theft of Sister Rose's corpse. The missing sister seems of little concern to anyone, including Balthazar, who's half in the bag from the flask tucked in his pocket.
Odd how so many characters in this play drink their hooch out of expensive-looking flasks. Have you ever, in real life, known any working stiff to carry a flask?
Anyway, some former students of boozy old Rose show up for no other reason than Guirgis needs them to. Rooftop (Jamal Gibran Sterling) is a flask-toting radio host in Los Angeles. He was once married to slutty Inez (Christina Vela) but cheated on her with sluttier Norca (Giselle LeBleu). Gail and his boyfriend Flip (Joshua Peterson, Johnard Washington) are in from Wisconsin for the funeral and almost break up in a fight over which of them acts gayer (they're both screaming stereotypes of bitchy queens, which suggests that Guirgis either doesn't like gay men or doesn't know any).
It's unclear whether the main characters are supposed to be the same age—they all reminisce about being in classes taught by Sister Rose—but they don't look it. In director Tina Parker's co-production with SMU's Meadows School of the Arts theater program, some actors are in their 20s, others in their 30s or 40s. Confusing.
The play breaks down in episodes: Rooftop in the confession booth, annoying a double-amputee priest (Bill Lengfelder); Inez and Norca arguing; Gail and Flip arguing; Balthazar arguing with Norca; Victor ranting in his underwear.
Averaging at least one uck-fay per minute, Our Lady never solves the case of the stolen corpse (parts of her float up in the river), and all the characters start to sound alike. Guirgis' people are like those under-five-line witnesses on old installments of NYPD Blue (for which Guirgis wrote); they're colorful but predictably coarse urban dwellers. Not a one is worth spending a whole evening with.
Too far into the proceedings to save Our Lady, two performances suddenly explode into something nearly great. Frequent Kitchen Dog actor Ian Leson and SMU senior Keenan Charles Olson share a searing scene as troubled brothers Edwin and Pinky. Older Edwin, a building super, keeps a close eye on Pinky, a sweet kid suffering the effects of a childhood head injury. When Pinky disappears for a day—with his disability check—Edwin flies into a rage.
Leson is a masterful under-player of tension, seething quietly toward the moment when Pinky returns and Edwin's wrath is at last unwrapped. If more of the play were as raw and real as this, it would really be something. Since it's not, at least these two good actors deserve a tip of the flask for their efforts.