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The buzz from abroad was about Sucker Punch’s raw politics—interpersonal, inter- and intraracial. But Studio Theatre’s production packs less of a wallop when it talks than when it moves: The loves and the loathings that throw its characters together and then pull them apart are familiar enough, and the play’s interrogation of them never goes terribly deep. But the fight choreography and the performances at the core? Yowza.
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It’s London in the 1980s, and two mouthy punks are quarreling over who’ll mop the floor while the other cleans a particularly filthy toilet. They’re on scrub duty as punishment: They’ve broken into this second-rate training gym on a whim, and gotten caught, so it’s labor or the police. This being a fairly traditional boxing drama, it’ll only be a few pages before one of them takes a swing at one of the fighters-in-training and catches the eye of the joint’s once-formidable proprietor. From there it’s a rise to fame and riches, the usual tip-over into hubris, and the inevitable fall from glory.
Along the way, the two—they’re called Leon and Troy, and they’re played thrillingly by Sheldon Best and Emmanuel Brown—will find their friendship tested by pressures macro and micro. Outside, the police of Margaret Thatcher’s England stop brown-skinned kids like them for whatever reason. Inside, even their pugilistic skills aren’t enough to earn the respect of the gym’s whites. (Except for the owner’s daughter, and what develops between her and Leon will drive a different sort of wedge between him and Troy.)
Familiar enough stuff, in other words, if engagingly framed in swaggering, testosterone-soaked exchanges and dialect thick enough to smear on toast. It’s the physicality of the performances—the anger in Brown’s restless, coiled body language, the lithe joy in Best’s exuberantly fluid fights—that’ll leave you feeling wrung out by the end of an intermissionless 100 minutes. Fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, director Leah. C. Gardiner, and the creative team that creates so convincingly grubby a frame have more than earned the attention.