With “In This Corner,” Steven Drukman sets out to restore the rep of Joe Louis (1914-81), unassuming “Brown Bomber” sandwiched between the more controversial Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali but arguably the one who holds the strongest claim to the title of greatest ever. If rehab effort succeeds, it seldom rises above the level of an A&E “Biography” segment due to cipher protagonist and thematic uncertainty. Pulled punches prevent a knockout, but as sheer entertainment Ethan McSweeny’s colorful Old Globe world preem wins a decision on points.
Transitional figure Louis (Dion Graham) was carefully schooled to restrain any Jack Johnson-like antics likely to turn off the majority culture. (For a time, he was forbidden white opponents on the same grounds.) American-hero status came through celebrated battles with Nazi Germany’s pride and joy Max Schmeling (Rufus Collins) and subsequent Army induction, but postwar tax problems, drug abuse and commitment to a psych ward haunted him into decline and obscurity.
Who was that man in that corner, and why did he fall so far so fast? Drukman lays out all the key events, punctuated with ironic commentary from a small but energetic chorus of onlookers and participants, but no consistent, coherent point of view ever emerges. Whether Louis was a tool, victim or wise player in the effort to control his emotions for white America’s benefit isn’t explored. Nor can we extrapolate much from his impassivity at the race prejudice encountered at every phase. Hints of inherited mental problems are raised, doubted, dropped.
Graham’s dignified, world-weary Joe hints at more than meets the eye, but in a way that’s the problem, as the writing never provides enough to sink our teeth into. “I am a man; I have my name” is about as deep as the investigation ever gets. Why did America drop him? Why was he forced into wrestling matches wearing an Indian headdress? Wherefore the appeal of heroin? Throughout, Louis garners our sympathy but rarely our understanding.
Schmeling’s treatment is even more ambivalent, his involvement in Hitler’s world propaganda plans papered over in a shockingly insensitive (and opportunity-wasting) sequence with a burlesque Hitler, denying the boxer’s dilemma any reality or tension. Thereafter, he’s one-dimensionally noble, his main characteristic a Col. Klink accent more appropriate to a Bob Hope wartime farce.
The Hitler scene is McSweeny’s only major flub, as he otherwise satisfyingly applies fancy footwork to disguise material’s thinness. Characters prowl (and commentators orate) across, around and beneath Lee Savage’s superbly crummy boxing ring set, with considerable variety and several visual coups to command attention.
Tyler Micoleau’s lights imaginatively distinguish Louis’ public and private worlds, and though movies have spoiled us, Steve Rankin infuses the snatches of pugilism with as much realism as the stage permits. Still, the most effective boxing sequence is the second Louis-Schmeling bout, which aud and actors experience exactly the way America did: staring at a radio lit from above at center stage, everything else hushed in the dark.
Among the capable ensemble, T. Ryder Smith adds a welcome touch of film noir in his uncanny resemblance to the late, great Marc Lawrence. He’s got the best handle on the alliterative sportswriter patois Drukman pours over everything like gravy and scores with a ref’s sizzling monologue defending his role in raising a prizefight above the level of “Boy meets boy, boy hits boy, boy sends boy into coma.” “I make the KO … OK,” he insists.
Aficionados of fistiana and/or beefcake should show up early for John Keabler’s solo warmup routine establishing a suitably sweaty mood. Thesp’s skills with a punching bag, medicine ball and (especially) jump rope are far more impressive than those of the canvas-munching palookas — Primo Carnera, Max Baer and various Louis sparring partners — he impersonates during the show proper.