Mountain McClintock never took a dive--it's the one thing the aging boxer is proud of, the one shred of dignity he still owns. But the hero of Rod Serling's sagacious Requiem for a Heavyweight has a dignity he doesn't recognize, a small flame of intelligence that blazes up for one last time and lights his way to self-respect. Poignant, bleak and yet resolutely humane, Requiem represents the best of 1950s realism, and this striking production at the RiverTree Theatre shows off the more terrestrial talents of the master craftsman best known for his Twilight Zone TV series.
As the play opens, Mountain has been knocked out once again, and the doctor pronounces him no longer fit to fight. Mountain doesn't seem to mind all that much--he once was a contender for the heavyweight championship of the world, and that's enough for him. His manager, Maish Resnick, however, is in big trouble. Maish needs $3,000 for a deal he made on a new fighter. If he doesn't get it in two weeks, he'll lose the fighter and his own license. Maish isn't really a bad guy, but little by little he gives in to the idea of offering up his one loyal friend to the gods of greed--the fixed wrestling matches that require the participants to "dive" on cue.
Because Mountain feels indebted to Maish, he tries to find a job to help him raise cash. He goes to an employment agency, and the young woman who helps him is so sympathetic that the poor lummox is smitten with her. The relationship at first seems hopeless, but Serling has written the story so well that the plot twists are unpredictable.
Not that there's a silver lining to these clouds. Serling was anything but a mindless optimist, and he keeps the tone somber, leading his characters into a spiral of degrading tradeoffs. But the funny thing about a spiral is that it can go two ways. Mountain isn't just a punch-drunk fighter, he's a fundamentally honest man; and Maish, the domineering manager, is ultimately the weaker of the two. The truth, however ugly, can set a noble spirit free--that's the message of Requiem, but it's delivered as a revelation, not a sermon.
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This is a wonderful play for juicy supporting roles. Ralph Jorba's tormented Maish wakes gradually to his own treacherous disloyalty, and he finally strangles all his decent impulses before they get the best of him. Pat Mahoney plays Mountain's trainer, Army Hakes, with a gruff fatherliness; Army takes Maish's orders like a good sergeant, but he tells his captain off with simple, solid disdain.
James F. Frazier as the vindictive fight promoter, Max, Nelson Embleton as the crusty Doctor, Dana McCarthy as the sleazy wrestling promoter, Perelli, and James T. Stokes as the weasel Leo, owner of a stable of has-been fighters, punch up the whole production. Kami Lichtenberg as Maish's professional love interest gives a sympathetic performance without sentimentalizing the trade.
Gary Cupp's Mountain is all stammering, dim-witted good nature, and Cupp overdoes the stutters. But he gets the most essential thing right about the character: the slow dawning of self-respect. Lorraine Juhas is believably sweet as Grace, the sensitive young woman who tries to help Mountain. It's an uneven performance until Grace and Mountain meet for the last time in her apartment. This scene is the best in the play, and it's the turning point in Mountain's understanding of himself and Maish.
The RiverTree's entire theatrical space is used effectively, and the perceptive production polishes some of Serling's more subtle messages like gems. And Requiem for a Heavyweight, sadly, has become a tribute to director Sam Dodero, who died a week before the opening. Dodero, whose work as an actor and director was accomplished and entertaining, will be sorely missed.