From The Champ and Requiem for a Heavyweight to Rocky and Raging Bull, boxing stories have inherent drama—the reason being that boxing itself is inherently dramatic. Narrative just doesn’t get any more hard-core than the notion of two people stuck in a small space that they can’t leave until one of them outfights the other. It’s the essence of conflict, certainly. And, insofar as it provides a crude yardstick for determining self-worth, the essence of character, too.
Brett Neveu‘s new—and, I’m thinking, best—play takes place in and around a boxing ring. Its dramatis personae consists of two fighters. But it doesn’t supply the blood-spurting, klieg-lit ten-rounder that gives any conventional boxing tale its big moments. All that sort of activity takes place in the space between the two acts. Instead, The Opponent offers a couple private workout sessions in a Louisiana gym. Former pugilist-turned-trainer Tremont is taking a young pro, Donell, through his paces. And that’s pretty much it, except for the banter. Still, the interaction between the two men is as devastating in its way, as hard-core, as anything that happened between Ali and Frazier—or, maybe more precisely, between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran on the night Duran said, “No mas.”
As Tremont and Donell respectively, Guy van Swearingen and Kamal Angelo Bolden are stunning for their endurance alone. The space at A Red Orchid Theatre begins to smell like a gym as they do their reps. Thing is, they make the play heartbreaking, too. Under Karen Kessler’s direction, both men give the kind of performances fans will be wanting to say they witnessed years from now.