For a drama centered on the intense relationship between one of the world's most charming wordsmiths and a show-stopping athlete of almost otherworldly grace and physical prowess, “Shaw vs. Tunney” is a work that is often remarkably static.
There's definitely potential in playwright Douglas Post's world premiere play for the Grippo Stage Company. The script explores the real-life, decades-long friendship between world heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. But “Shaw vs. Tunney” limps and falters where it should hover and sting, bogged down by a plot grounded not in storytelling but in philosophical debate.
Onstage, Tunney and Shaw don't go much deeper than the figures sketched out on the storyboard. It's possible that the Post's source material – “The Prizefighter and the Poet”, a book written by Tunney's son, Jay R. Tunney – is better in character. But under the direction of Nick Sandys' stage production, it quickly became difficult to care too much about Tunney (Sam Pearson), Shaw (Richard Henzel) and Tunney's wife Polly (Maddie Sachs).
Pearson's Tunney was a voracious reader and a devout Catholic who was obsessed with showing the world that book wit and inquisitive intelligence could coexist with unshakable faith, just as brute force in the boxing ring does not precede the quest for education outside the ring. insatiable.
Shaw is key to Tunney's highly defensive mode of existence: If he can stick with the authors of works including “Saint Joan,” “Major Barbara,” and “Pygmalion,” Tunney can prove his own worth to the world. So with newlywed Polly in tow, Tunney cut short an extended honeymoon in favor of a visit with Shaw at his island home in the northern Adriatic.
The Tunneys were greeted by a confused and prickly Shaw in turn. Post follows the thread of the two men's conversational relationship from 1928 to 1948. The main problem with “Shaw vs. Tunney” is that it is a discussion rather than a journey. The discussion takes place mainly in the sequence of scenes of two people, the odd man (or Polly) is revealed to be sitting on a stage in the shadows.
That the script is more talk than action is not the only problem. In terms of character development, Polly is barely ahead of Shaw's wife who is constantly off stage. Like Shaw's wife Charlotte, Polly exists only as a vessel for her husband's hopes and dreams. In one particularly hilarious moment, Tunney leaves his very possibly dying wife groaning in agony so he can visit Shaw.
Tunney never came across as more than a tad angry, defensive and very self-absorbed. He plays monologues out of hatred, lamenting that he is grossly disrespected by an uneducated corps of press (who resent him for his passion for reading) and elitists who want to see him catapulted back to his working-class roots. And though Tunney portrays his accomplishments in the ring with the arrogance and pride of a champion, he is nothing but an insult to the “mobs” that made his championship possible.
As Shaw, Henzel delivers Post's witty and sharp script requests. Still, Post's script turns Shaw into a series of epigrams much more than a complete individual. As Tunney, Pearson has the broad-shouldered air of a boxing champion. That served him well, especially in the fight reenactment, when he combined the grace of a ballet dancer and the threat of an assassin.
Despite its larger-than-life title, there's no hero and nothing worth rooting for in “Shaw vs. Tunny.” However, there are two killer moments that reveal potential in the story, both of which occur when Tunney offers a staged prize fighter show. With Henzel and Pearson circling like bantam roosters ready for a cockfight, the action turns from vanilla to thriller as Tunney's match and rematch against George Dempsey play out.
The ultra-minimalist and budget-conscious Abbie Reed kit is adequate if generic. There is little discernible difference between the Adriatic and London islands, but there is also little reason to care. Rachel Lambert has a cast outfitted in tweed and taupe, and like the set, there's nothing particular to her costume design: It's timeless, it's generic.
There are solid game bones in “Shaw vs. Tunney”. Unfortunately, they are meatless.