Legit Review: ‘The Royale’

Ninety minutes is the preferred running time for most new plays these days. But it’s just not enough for what Marco Ramirez attempts with “The Royale,” now being given its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Director Daniel Aukin stages quite a show — technically and choreographically, it’s like a musical without songs — but this bioplay of the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion pins too much of its drama on one underwritten character. And it’s not Jack Johnson.

For his dramatic purposes, Ramirez calls him Jay Jackson (David St. Louis). In his 1967 play, “The Great White Hope,” Howard Sackler used the name Jack Jefferson, letting us know that his drama was not strictly bound by the facts. Ramirez’s take is much more freewheeling. Although the title bout is staged, we never actually see the actor playing the Canadian boxer Tommy Burns, referred to here as Bernard Bixby. Instead, Ramirez has Jay’s sister Nina (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick) be a sort of stand-in for that white fighter. It’s a concept that takes some explaining, although due to the considerable talents of Ramirez and Aukin it makes total sense as staged.

Nina is the symbol of why Jay is fighting, he says. Nina is also supposed to be the reason he should lose the fight, she says. That is a lot of weight to put on any character, especially one who is introduced to us only a couple of scenes earlier. Jay recalls perfume ads that featured female models who did not resemble his sister, who has suffered serious burns trying to straighten her hair.

“‘Cause she ain’t never seen no posters looked like her, he cries.

But Nina’s son has already been beaten up in a fight, and she fears what bigots all over the country will do when the world heavyweight boxing champion is no longer a white man.

“Look at the dogs you’re about to unleash. And don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she cries with equal force.

Remember that these speeches are delivered as the title bout takes place. Aukin has ingeniously prepared us for this bit of legit legerdemain by staging a previous fight in which the two boxers face not each other but the audience, as if it were readers theater without the scripts in hand and punches not so much thrown as stomped on the boards, and we see the result of those blows as heads swerve and bodies fall. It’s great staging accompanied by a whole battery of dazzling lighting and sound effects by designers Lap Chi Chu and Ryan Rumery. Rather than being a fight coordinator, Ameenah Kaplan is aptly credit for “movement and rhythm.” The movies show us what happens to a fighter’s body, Ramirez succeeds in showing us what happens to a fighter’s brain.

The same derring-do takes place in that second bout, with Jay and Nina on stage. But heretofore, Nina is only a speech about her little boy and her fears for the future. Even though Kilpatrick nearly matches the ferocity of St. Louis’ performance, she’s a symbol, not a character.

And a cliche at that. How many dramatic works pit the man with a dream against the woman with a family? As played by St. Louis and written by Ramirez, Jay is simply too focused and driven in his dream for Nina ever to be a real threat. She just needs to be quickly pushed out of the way for history to happen.

The Royale

(Kirk Douglas Theater, Culver City; 131 seats, $50 top)

A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in one act by Marco Ramirez. Directed by Daniel Aukin. Set and costumes, Andrew Boyce; lighting, Lap Chi Chu; original music and sound, Ryan Rumery; movement and rhythm, Ameenah Kaplan. Opened and reviewed May 5, 2013. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

With: Robert Gossett, Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, David St. Louis, Keith Szarabajka, Desean Terry.

Popular on Variety

Legit Review: 'The Royale'

More Legit

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

  • Bat Out of Hell review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Bat Out of Hell'

    No one has ever accused Jim Steinman of subtlety. The composer behind Meat Loaf’s 1977 “Bat Out of Hell” (more than 43 million albums sold worldwide) and 1993’s “Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell” (five and six times platinum in the UK and US) has forever trafficked in a boldly theatrical brand of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content