March 15, 2012 at 9:36 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Knockout theater

‘Sucker Punch’
Through April 8
Studio Theatre
1501 14th Street, NW


“Sucker Punch,” a British import now making its U.S. premier at Studio Theatre, is the story of two up-and-coming boxers, who despite racism and assorted other adversity, fight their way to the top only to discover success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And while playwright Roy Williams’ surfacey script covers varied aspects of the young athletes’ lives, the production’s best scenes, by far, take place in the ring.

Sheldon Best, left, and Emmanuel Brown in ‘Sucker Punch.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Studio)

On the streets of 1980s London, racial tensions run high and riots are breaking out. In a rundown boxing gym, two friends are scrapping over who’s going to clean what. It seems black teens Leon and Troy (excitingly portrayed by charismatic Sheldon Best and Emmanuel Brown respectively) were caught breaking into the gym and rather than have them arrested, its owner Charlie Maggs (Sean Gormley) has opted to let them pay their debt by mopping floors and scrubbing dirty toilets. In time, Charlie, who’s also a trainer, cannot help but notice the pair’s raw potential and offers them the opportunity to train.

Leon is a natural. He’s graceful in the ring. His footwork is fast. Soon he begins to win fights. He’s also affable and keeps peace at the gym. Though also talented, Troy is more difficult, angrier. He (understandably) butts heads with the gym’s resident racist white boxer Tommy (Lucas Beck) and can’t get along with Charlie. Eventually Troy bolts and embarks on a boxing career in the states.

For reasons not clearly explained, Leon remains excessively loyal to his third-rate, casually racist trainer. And while he is lionhearted in the ring, elsewhere Leon proves less confident. Problems arise: His street cred is questioned, black sports fans call him a sellout, his slimy father Squid (Michael Rogers) takes advantage and his strained romantic relationship with Charlie’s daughter Becky (Dana Levanovsky) fizzles. But still, Leon does his best to stay focused and keep his eye on the prize. More than once, he says he knows himself and that’s what counts.

Set designer Dan Conway has faithfully recreated a grimy gym with one exception: the ring is a sunken square without ropes. And it’s within that ring where the show comes alive. Center stage and spot lit, Leon relays his ascent from popular amateur to Olympic medalist to welterweight champion. Director Leah C. Gardiner and a first rate design team summon the boxing experience. Alone on stage, Leon lands devastating blows, takes hits and responds to cheers and jeers from the crowd.

Both Best and Brown spent weeks physically training for their roles at a boxing gym in New York City and it shows: They’re both in amazing shape and convincingly move like real boxers. Best’s performance, in particular, is an intense workout. He’s on stage throughout most of the show (100 minutes without intermission) and for much of that time he’s skipping rope, shadow boxing, doing crunches or passing a medicine ball.

In the end, Leon and Troy are reunited as opponents in a high stakes title bout. The gym’s dirty walls are replaced by murky mirrors, effectively transforming the space into an arena. In a dramatic slugfest (thrillingly choreographed by Rick Sordelet), the onetime best friends settle old scores and seek resolution. And it all happens in the ring.

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