An older man in white shirt and brown tweed vest and boxing gloves lands a punch on the face of a younger man in white short-sleeved shirt and boxing gloves.
Richard Henzel (left) and Sam Pearson in the title roles in Grippo Stage Company's Shaw vs. Tunney Credit: Anthony Robert LaPenna

What is it that draws great writers to boxing as a subject? Is it an identification with the sport’s pure brutal (yet calculated) physicality removed from the need for verbal acuity? A way to demonstrate street cred (a kind of reverse snobbery)? For A.J. Liebling, the “sweet science” (at least when viewed in person) was a chance to “study one boxer’s problem, solve it, and then communicate my solution vocally. On occasion my advice is disregarded, as when I tell a man to stay away from the other fellow’s left and he doesn’t, but in such cases I assume that he hasn’t heard my counsel, or that his opponent has, and has acted on it.”

Shaw vs. Tunney
Through 7/8: Thu-Fri 7 PM, Sat 2 and 7 PM, Sun 2 PM; Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, or, $40-$42

One assumes that George Bernard Shaw, at least the one we meet in Douglas Post’s Shaw vs. Tunney, now in its world premiere with Grippo Stage Company, felt a similar sense of proprietorship with boxers. Based on the 2009 book The Prizefighter and the Playwright by Jay Tunney (son of Gene, world heavyweight champ from 1926-28), Post’s play takes place after Gene Tunney left boxing behind to pursue a life of the mind—aided in part by his own winnings and by his marriage to Polly Lauder, an heiress to the U.S. Steel fortune. (Andrew Carnegie was her great-uncle, and her grandfather George was Carnegie’s business partner.)

Taking place over three different time periods (1928, 1929, and 1948), Post’s play is more about philosophical debate on the nature of faith than the ins and outs of boxing technique. And at least at first, the show threatens to bog down in a rush of exposition as Shaw (Richard Henzel), Gene (Sam Pearson), and Polly (Maddie Sachs) all meet for the first time at Shaw’s home in London. Shaw has a bone to pick with Tunney when we first see them. The latter had described the title protagonist in Shaw’s novel about a prizefighter, Cashel Byron’s Profession, as poorly drawn and unrealistic. 

But Henzel’s Shaw isn’t really upset. He’s cannily checking out Tunney’s verbal defense strategies and quickly admits that as a novelist, he’s one helluva playwright. He’s coming to Tunney with a fan’s honest enthusiasm for the sport of kings. And Pearson’s Tunney, who had to leave school at 15, is equally eager to absorb as much as he can from the polymath playwright—even if it means, as a devout Catholic, feeling that he needs to put up his dukes and defend his faith from the atheist Shaw.

The central event in Post’s play, directed by Nick Sandys, takes place during Polly and Gene’s long honeymoon on the Adriatic island of Brijuni. Shaw joins them, and when a sudden health crisis threatens Polly’s life, the role of faith becomes even more pronounced.

For a play about a boxer, this show is mostly about talking, and that sometimes threatens to land the narrative on the canvas. (Abbie Reed’s set suggests an ethereal boxing ring, with benches on the side for characters to sit and watch when they’re not in the scene, and a heavy door in the back wall offering a hint of mystery.) 

But Post teases out the dichotomies between brains and brawn and spirituality and skepticism with nuance and a clear love for these characters. It helps that Henzel in particular (who has made a long career of playing Mark Twain) brings honest joie de vivre to another highly quotable beloved renegade writer. A scene reenacting the famous “long count” in the Chicago rematch between Tunney and Jack Dempsey helps us see what Shaw saw, watching it on film—the tension and anticipation of wondering if Tunney was really struggling, or was playing possum and taking advantage of his opponent’s technical error in not finding his neutral corner.

There’s a whiff of hagiography here, as one might expect given the source material (Jay Tunney and Gene’s granddaughter Teressa are also executive producers), but Shaw vs. Tunney finally delivers as a keenly felt portrait of a seemingly unlikely friendship between two men (and one supportive woman whose role could be beefed up) who both saw in each other a vision of what a different path in life might have looked like, and loved and respected each other deeply.