A few blocks northeast of Broadway's shiniest prize fight, another boxing ring has lost its luster after years of arduous training. Brett Neveu's The Opponent, which recently transferred from Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre to 59E59 Theaters, examines the world of professional boxing without the musical montage, climactic love story, or mythic final battle to add a noble heroism to the otherwise grungy setting. Rather than cashing in on these conventional modes of theatrical suspense, the introspective two-hander, following an up-and-coming boxer and his longtime coach, opts for a subdued character study. It may not leave you holding your breath, but it will convince you to lean an ear toward the ring.
Guy Van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden reprise their roles as trainer Tre (short for Tremont) and protégé Donell, respectively, showcasing the natural, fluid rapport that has been wonderfully nurtured by director Karen Kessler. The pair successfully anchors two complete acts, filled with nothing but simple conversation that ebbs and flows in dramatic tension. The play opens on the morning of a career-defining fight that underdog Donell has arranged for himself against known commodity Jas Dennis. He stops by Tre's gym — a small, dilapidated operation with a heavily worn ring as the centerpiece of Joey Wade's set design — for a short workout before the fight. He also uses the session as an opportunity to invite his trainer and mentor to what he confidently expects to be a monumental personal and professional victory.
Bolden's brawny physique and athletic grace make him look at ease in the ring as he overflows with the energy and ambitious naïveté of a young dreamer. From this (potentially) historic day on, he sees a straight path to fame and fortune that will put Jas Dennis' moderate success to shame. Like a son seeking approval from his stiff upper-lipped father, Donell casually pokes and prods at Tre until he finally agrees to attend the evening's fight, and more important, pay him a celebratory visit afterwards.
Neveu subtly establishes this hierarchical power dynamic in their first few rounds of banter, most of which is so muddled in boxing shorthand and thick Louisiana accents that many of the expository details are lost in the shuffle — no pun intended. However, the silent body language exchanged through the gradually intensifying exercises, sharply choreographed by fight director John Tovar, fills in these important details and adds an intriguing physical layer to their verbal sparring match. As they move around the ring, trading punches and stories about people and events from their mutual past, the origin of Tre's mysterious reluctance to come to Donell's fight starts to become clearer. Yet it's not until the second act, set five years later, when the contours of Tre's character truly sharpen in the aftermath of a jolting power shift.
Swearingen delivers a beautifully sympathetic performance as the posturing coach, whose business and personal esteem have, for years, been in decline. His charming, mild-mannered front masks a permanent ache of disappointment and loss that quietly bubbles beneath the surface. These painful scars, matched with Donell's burning ambition, makes for a palpable tug-of-war that literally leads to blows in an impressively staged fight, now laden with authentic aggression. As sweat beads down the actors' foreheads in this primitive battle for dominance, Neveu concisely captures the dirty and disillusioning business of growing into adulthood — a path that sadly forces us to recognize the fallible humanity of our most respected mentors.