At one time, everybody who read a newspaper—which is to say, everybody—was pointedly aware of the horrific welterweight championship bout of March, 1962 in which Benny Paret was beaten to a pulp by Emile Griffith and died 10 days later. Memories have faded now, and even then few were aware of the psychosexual stresses underlying the event. So Michael Cristofer has a fresh story to tell in Man in the Ring, which gets a strong production from director Michael Greif at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. Cristofer, of course, is the Pulitzer-winning author of The Shadow Box, the still-potent chronicle of three families coping with impending death. That same sensitivity to character complements his appreciation of Griffith (1938-2013) as ambitious immigrant, reluctant champion, sexual explorer and neurological blood sport victim.
Those many sides are ingeniously approached by having him played by two actors both in separate time frames and simultaneous colloquy. A stunning Kyle Vincent Terry is the insouciant arrival from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, proclaiming “I be a singing baseball man. Sing and swing and make some hats up on the side.” The ever-brilliant John Douglas Thompson is the shell left over after falling out of crooning and millinery, into the fight racket. Together they take the measure of one of sports’ most complex, fascinating figures.
Griffith is a particularly intriguing pre-Stonewall icon, a privately avowed bisexual who married an island showgirl (Krystal Joy Brown, lovely) while conducting a long-term affair with the fan (Victor Almanzar) who would become his latter-day caregiver. The play makes much of promoter Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp) urging a “killer instinct” to maximize Emile’s physical gifts, while weaving in speculation as to the meaning of masculinity for a victim of rape by an uncle back in the Islands. Along with such heavy matters is time spent on the “mommie” (Starla Benford) Griffith only got to know in late youth. And though we see enacted the famous weigh-in when Paret’s goading his opponent as “maricón” allegedly lit up that killer instinct big time, there are intimations that Paret and his handlers bore much responsibility for his ultimate fate.
Whew! Cristofer is clearly eager to do right by his subject by incorporating as much research as possible. There’s a sense in performance, however, of rushing and loose ends. Seemingly influential characters, the fighters’ wives for instance, get short shrift. One is often unsure whether Emile’s inamorato is a loser, user or helpmeet, or how much Albert knew or cared about his man’s after-hours appetites. A fierce argument between mother and son erupts out of nowhere, and ends unresolved. The older Griffith claims “I killed a man and the world forgives me,” though we have to take that on faith.
For that matter, as far as Emile’s attitude about his sexuality is concerned, both young and older incarnations whipsaw among brazenness, shame, anger, denial, self-loathing and matter-of-fact acceptance without a clear throughline. You have to applaud the desire not to force a single interpretation of something as important as a protagonist’s sexuality. But when a play proceeds as if the interpretation were self-evidently defined, and then tosses in so many contradictory clues, confusion is going to result.
None of the script’s problems is unfixable, and not everyone will care, given the charismatic central character and this striking production, which conveys the dank film noir atmosphere one associates with Champion or Raging Bull without stinting on empathetic emotional precision. Movement and music—always Greif specialties—remind us of the strong pull of Griffith’s island roots, with indigenous songs and children’s chants, ably arranged by Michael McElroy, tossed in from the sidelines against Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet’s ultra-real pugilistic recreations.
And whatever inconsistencies may exist in the roles, the company gnaws eagerly on the meat Cristofer tosses them. Not only are Terry and Thompson perfectly matched as the fresh-faced newcomer and his bust-out, beat-up later self, each is remarkably skilled at showing his Emile’s gradations. Terry charts a decided decline, while Thompson shows us more subtle cognitive changes; together they persuade us that we’ve gotten to know the man in full. Almanzar’s patient tenderness, Clapp’s stalwart dignity and Benford’s eerily distracted maternity are strong contributors to a gripping evening.
Man in the Ring opened November 28, 2018, at the Huntington Theatre Company, Boston MA and runs through December 22. Tickets and information: huntingtontheatre.org