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Bruised Bodies, Bruised Souls

Rod Serling’s time-tested play about boxing doesn’t pull any punches.




"A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone," wrote A.J. Liebling in his love letter to boxing, The Sweet Science. Another enthusiast, Joyce Carol Oates, described boxers as "extravagant fictions without a structure to contain them." But neither Liebling nor Oates ever stepped into a ring. Rod Serling did—he was an amateur fighter in the army during World War II—and his Requiem for a Heavyweight remains one of the most damning indictments of the sport ever realized. To Serling it's risible to even call it a sport. Maish, the scheming manager of the fading, slow-witted 33-year-old contender Harlan "Mountain" McClintock, lays out the world of prizefights for Army, Mountain's sympathetic cut man. "Sport? Look around, Army—this isn't any sport. If there was headroom, they'd hold them in sewers."

Serling may be best known today as the brilliant auteur behind Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater, but in 1956, just before he ventured into science fiction, he raised the bar for live television drama with Requiem for a Heavyweight, which won both a Peabody and several Emmy awards. The first piece broadcast in CBS's celebrated Playhouse 90 series, it starred Jack Palance and was remade for British and Dutch television (with Sean Connery as Mountain in the English version). A film featuring Anthony Quinn as the fighter was released in 1962, and the script made it to Broadway in 1985, ten years after Serling's death, in a production starring John Lithgow.

Notwithstanding the somewhat sanitized Playhouse 90 version, which gave Mountain a path out of his punch-drunk squalor and shame, this is a tough-minded, unsentimental piece. It's also undeniably of its time: this is prizefighting as it was before the glamour and glitz of pay-per-view Vegas bouts. There's no Cristal or supermodels after hours. The fighters hang out in a seedy bar where, if the bartender's in a generous mood, he pours whiskey from a bottle that he declares is "the only one what ain't been watered." Even finding a clean glass for the rare woman who wanders into the joint is a challenge.

But if there's a director in Chicago who can make mid-20th-century realism fresh and compelling, it's Louis Contey. He depicted bruised souls and vanishing dreams with a sure hand in his production of Clifford Odets's Paradise Lost for TimeLine last August. In Shattered Globe's Requiem, Contey sets the terms early, opening with a grueling bout between a horrifically bloodied and exhausted Mountain and a younger challenger. The wordless pummeling (effectively choreographed by Nick Sandys) goes on so long we're relieved when Mountain loses on a TKO. However, Maish is distraught: unbeknownst to Mountain, the manager bet that his fighter wouldn't go three rounds, but the tough lug made it to seven. Now Maish won't get the money he's promised to pay a mobster for a younger fighter. And since the doctor is telling him that Mountain's vision, and perhaps his life, could end with the next blow, Maish's meal ticket of 14 years may be permanently out of commission.

Serling's story is as much about the deeply compromised Maish as it is about Mountain. Decrepit and down-at-the-heels, at least Mountain is honorable. And he has the satisfaction of knowing that he was once a contender—ranked number five, he tells Grace, a sympathetic employment counselor whose ministrations provide his only real respite. Maish, on the other hand, only knows how to feed off the strength and talent of others—you might call the play "Requiem for a Middle Manager." A master manipulator, he plays the guilt card with Mountain, urging him to put on a Davy Crockett hat and go into pro wrestling, in bouts fixed by wrestling promoter Perelli.

There isn't anything particularly startling or insightful in Serling's using professional sports as a metaphor for the filthy kitchen of business as usual. But what makes it stand out 50 years after it was first produced is that, unlike many cultural artifacts, from Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, it never disguises boxing's inherent brutality with "extravagant fictions." (Clint Eastwood's film even gave us a strong, silent, sensitive manager who reads Yeats in Gaelic—a neat trick considering that the poet didn't know that language.)

Serling clearly sees boxing as a zero-sum game, and the notion permeates all the sharply drawn characters in Contey's production, from the "Wednesday night sewing circle" of washed-up fighters at the bar, regaling one another with stories of barely remembered bouts, to Perelli, who scoffs at the idea that there's any difference between boxing and fixed wrestling matches. "It's the same kind of crap. We just package it different," he says. Despite the lush paintings of boxers that line the walls of Kevin Hagan's set like saints in a church, nothing in this milieu is worthy of reverence.

Sean Sullivan's stolid Mountain and Bill Bannon's shifty Maish are like Steinbeck's Lenny and George set down in the Bowery. The tensions between them are rooted in affection, but Serling suggests there can be no real love in a world where one man's livelihood depends on another's suffering. Maish knows that what he does is rotten, but he's in too deep to escape. Paula Stevens's sweet but not saccharine Grace and Brian McCartney's Army bring flashes of better angels to the story. But the unrelenting truth, despite Mountain's pride and Maish's pity and admiration for his once gifted protege, is that a fighter who can no longer fight is, as another manager spits at Mountain, "Garbage. Meat and scrambled eggs." Liebling got one thing right: at the end of his career Mountain is wholly alone, and so is Maish. Shattered Globe's deeply satisfying production not only provides a solid showcase for a uniformly strong and intelligent ensemble—it gives the lie to the poetry of pugilism.    v

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