4:56 PM CDT, October 23, 2012
The last several Brett Neveu plays — and this Chicago-spawned, Los Angeles-based scribe is nothing if not prolific — have been set in some nebulous, minimalist, metaphorical universe. They didn't land anywhere in particular, at least not beyond the writer's imagination and the viewer's mind.
But "The Opponent," the latest Neveu play, is specific, all right. It's set in a gym in Lafayette, La. If there were any doubts about that, there is a huge boxing ring stuffed into the tiny Old Town confines of A Red Orchid Theatre.
The discipline of time, place and character have served Neveu well. "The Opponent" is one of those darn good, only-possible-in-Chicago kind of shows, not least because director Karen Kessler's unstinting world-premiere production, which features a fantastic set by the resurgent designer Joey Wade, features action and fights that feel wholly believable.
"The Opponent" also is a showcase for one of those off-Loop actors who have been around for ever but have now reached the point where they're ready to really knock some demons to the floor. And so it goes here with Guy Van Swearingen, who sweats, grunts and flails for nearly two hours, trying to better the much younger actor Kamal Angelo Bolden (the star of 2009's wrestling play "Chad Deity" at Victory Gardens), who is built like a very lean prizefighter and who acts with the confidence of an ambitious man in love with his own charm.
Bolden plays Donell — in the first act an aspiring boxer and in the second, which is set five years later, a man on the other side of that pivotal fight. Van Swearingen plays Tremont "Tre" Billford, the owner of a crummy gym and the younger man's sparing partner, surrogate father and coach, and the owner of a business that takes his money. There are two kinds of fights in Kessler's production: one involves a younger man with gloves and an older man with training pads, the other features gloves all around. And knockout blows.
Neveu can be a reticent writer, and this play is no exception. But the upside of the Neveu slow burn is that it's easy to feel your metaphoric way into the show. Whenever I see a Neveu play (and there have been many), it always feels as if he's really writing about show business: I kept looking at the Tre character as a kind of stand-in for one of those William Morris Endeavor-type talent agents, or early supporters of his work, to whom the struggling writer is drawn but with whom the relationship is invariably complex.
But that might just be me. For sure, Neveu has many archetypes in his ring: The boxer is African-American, and the owner is white; the boxer is young, the owner is older; the boxer needs a parent; the owner needs a son. Tre has "no work, no kids, no family," we're told, and his gym is not doing well. So who needs whom the most?
Those are always good questions in the Mametian universe in which Neveu prefers to operate. The difference with "The Opponent" is that any cerebral-ness of theme or ambivalence of idea is mitigated by the sheer theatricality of the sparring in the ring going on right in front of your face.
And, boy, is Van Swearingen good here. This journeyman actor and former Chicago firefighter long has been something of a man of mystery onstage, and he does not abandon his lifelong resistance to, say, emoting excessively or actually smiling. But he smolders as he sweats here, and the stakes feel real. Bolden is, of course, the precise opposite — he looks like a spokesman for Gold's Gym, and he has both guilelessness and a chirpiness that he never can fully conceal. I've been resistant to that in some other shows, but in this one it creates just the right binary opposition for a great new play that dances, parries and, most important, lands some killer punches.
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells St.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $25-$30 at 312-943-8722 or aredorchidtheatre.org