Packs a wallop. Packs a punch. A one-round, one-act knockout. Like a punch in the mouth.
The temptation is to slide and jab and slip right into a whole bunch of boxing metaphors when describing “Sucker Punch,” the new play from Britain by Roy Williams at the Studio Theater. But while it squarely puts itself into the realm of cinematic — “Rocky,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” “Raging Bull” and even theatrical (Clifford Odet’s “Golden Boy” which was also a film) — ring sagas, “Sucker Punch” is a little more complicated than that.
It’s an odd mish-mash of a play. While it hews to some of the clichés and metaphors of boxing as a way out of poverty and rough upbringing, it’s also a kinetic production with imaginatively and powerfully potent staged fights, so vivid that you might expect to hear a bell starting the next round to wake you up in the morning.
It’s also English, set during the prime ministership of Meryl Streep — that is, Margaret Thatcher — a time in which the law-and-order prone leader and her police force frequently clashed with the poorer immigrant and working-class population of the country. This was a backdrop to “Billy Elliott,” the musical in which a working class youngster took up ballet instead of boxing as a way out in a setting of the rough nation-wide miner’s strike. Thatcher had a lot in common with her great admirer and co-leader of the Free World, President Ronald Reagan, and today’s union-busting American governors.
In the time of “Sucker Punch,” there were riots and demonstrations in the streets of South London with police clashing with younger denizens of the ghettos, many of them immigrants from the British Empire’s old colonies, such as Jamaica.
Leon and Troy, who have odd-job jobs at a local gymn where a tough, retired white boxer named Charlie is running the place into the ground, while trying to train boxers up to the national level of competition, including an embittered, racist punk named Tommy. One day, Charlie spies Leon in a clash with Tommy and notices his speed and power, and the rest is, if not history, the rest of the play.
Leon and his closest friend, the angry, suspicious, belligerent and charismatic Troy, clash over Leon’s budding friendship with Charlie, who has offered to train him, and over his budding romance with Becky, Charlie’s daughter. The friends part with Leon getting (and mostly winning) fights under the backing and tutelage of Charlie.
The 1980s were times when Britain had not seen its own black professional champions at almost any weight class Leon is the target of racist taunts during each of his fights. An agile, powerful Leon — who seems a bit like Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard — prevails. Everyone’s past catches up with them, as they rise to the top. The success story becomes a kind of Greek tragedy.
Regardless, the most immediate appeal of “Sucker Punch” is its astonishingly spectacular fight scenes, including a violent, virulent brawl with Tommy and a climactic super-battle with Troy who has become a title contender after going to the U.S.
These scenes — staged by fight coordinator Rick Sordelet with help from consultant Gary “Kid” Stark, Jr. — are thrilling and engrossing. They are so cinematically convincing and vivid that you are tricked to believe all those punches are landing.
That’s entertainment — but the acting of Sheldon Best as the sweet-hearted, constantly conflicted Leon and Emmanuel Brown as the electric, tortured and swift Troy, well, that’s high art, as far as I’m concerned. They give the play its real punch, its emotional punch, sporting-movie star charisma and energy.
Director Leah C. Gardner keeps the hour-and-a-half production moving at a speed that allows you to overlook the fact that this isn’t particularly cutting-edge stuff but high dudgeon drama and, given its 30-year-old historical setting, drama with immediacy.
Go see “Sucker Punch.” You’ll be — one more time — floored.
It’s at the Studio’s Theatre’s Mead Theatre through April 8.