Before he became famous for "The Twilight Zone", screenwriter Rod Serling had already distinguished himself with a series of brilliant, moving television dramas. "Requiem For A Heavyweight", produced in 1956 for CBS's, "Playhouse 90" was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, both for Jack Palance's breakout performance as the has-been heavyweight fighter "Mountain" McLintock, as well as for Serling's script, a gritty, humanistic examination of the underbelly of professional boxing. A highly successful 1962 film version followed starring Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, and featuring a cameo by an up-and-coming Cassius Clay. Theater Schmeater, long known for its late-night "Twilight Zone" productions continues its Serling love-fest with this stage adaptation solidly directed by Tim Hyland, with a toweringly sensitive lead performance by lead Jim Gall
"Requiem" is a classic melodrama where characters act less of their own accord than they are acted upon by outside forces. Hyland's staging meets this stylistic challenge head-on by emphasizing the play's stifling atmosphere, and using his production design to reinforce the sense of characters trapped in circumstances not of their own choosing. Going down below ground level into the dark, low-ceilinged theatre, the audience is instantly transported into a seamy third-rate boxing venue, replete with faded fight posters, a tinny upright piano, and bare light bulbs; it reeks of dust, desperation, sweat, beer, tobacco, and the acrid, metallic tang of dried blood. Scenic designer Peter Dylan O'Connor has transformed the theatre's wide, shallow stage into an arena configuration, placing the audience on three sides, with chairs for the actors against the back wall, thus compressing the playing area to a small square reminiscent of a boxing ring. A few simple set pieces complete this spare, shabby world inhabited by congenital losers clinging to tiny handholds of faded glory in a desperate attempt to keep from sliding into the chasm of professional oblivion.
Which is exactly where things start: knocked into insensibility in the seventh round of his 116th bout, McLintock is dragged into his locker room by his manager, Maish (Walter Dalton), and trainer, Army (Joseph P. McCarthy). Warned by a physician that one more blow could permanently injure or even kill him, Mountain is forced into retirement. But, boxing is all he knows - all he's ever done -- and his years in the ring have left him unprepared to face the outside world. Despite the admonitions of a sympathetic social worker (Deniece Bleha), he feels an unswerving devotion to his unscrupulous manager, who is beholden to a local mobster (Tina La Plant), and so can't afford to let go of his only tangible asset. When Maish concocts a scheme to sell the fighter's contract to a two-bit wrestling promoter, (Rick Shipman), Mountain is faced with the Hobson's Choice of trading his last shred of dignity - the only thing he's got left -- for humiliation in the wrestling ring, or else see his mentor murdered for a bad debt.
Throughout its several incarnations "Requiem" has proved to be an actor's showcase, with its tough-talking Film Noir inspired dialogue and emotional clarity. This production is graced by Gall's sensitive, dignified performance as the beaten, but never defeated Mountain. It's the sort of role designed for a big, tall actor, and Gall fills every inch of it, movingly portraying the character's internal confusion and anguish at being forced to abandon the only thing he knows how to do, while also subtly conveying the physical toll taken by 14 years in the ring. Brian Kent-Cooper's marvelous makeup design has transformed Gall's normally handsome features into a topographical map of scars, broken cartilage and pulverized bone. When he gets nervous, Mountain absent-mindedly massages the knuckles of his swollen, callused fingers. His speech is slurred to a dull rumble, and he shambles across the stage like a drunken skyscraper. This attention to physical detail, along with Gall's ability to gradually peel away the onion-skin layers of emotion to reveal the diamond core of McLintlock's being is stunningly realized.
Hyland surrounds Gall with a strong supporting ensemble, particularly with McCarthy, the hot-tempered fireplug of a trainer who acts as the Mutt to Gall's Jeff, and Bleha as the somewhat mousy, but earnest and sincere Grace. In their mutual desire to protect Mountain, they reveal Serling's basically positive (at least at the time) feelings toward human beings, and they and Gall play off each other with such touching care that their scenes literally sparkle. On the flip side are Dalton as the backed-into-a-corner manager Maish, and La Plant in the dual roles of a prostitute/sometimes girlfriend, Golda, and a female mob boss. While the characters are somewhat two dimensional, both actors bring a sense of fullness to their portrayals, and one gets the feeling that beneath their flinty, callous exteriors there lurks at least a fleeting spark of humanity deep within them. Plus, Serling gives them some of his choicest lines, several of which even today drip with the kind of venomous contempt we expect from the pen of Albee or Mamet (Golda: "You never buy me things." Maish: "Next time I'll get you a bathing suit: two band aids and a cork!"). The rest of the cast attacks their multiple roles with gusto, portraying a rogue's gallery of fighters, promoters, bartenders and ring rats.
For 50 years, "Requiem For A Heavyweight" has endured as a testament to the power of human dignity in the face of humiliating adversity. Theater Schmeater's production not only brings to life a seldom seen classic, but makes a strong case for solidifying Serling's reputation as a master storyteller.
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