German heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling, who in 1936 handed America's Joe Louis his first defeat, not only spoke spot-on English; his words were direct and simple, more like those of a teacher than a streetwise palooka who scarfed blood and uppercuts for breakfast. Both men, in fact, shared a refined, almost gentle nature. Young Joe was blinded by the fight game's unforgiving ways, and it's thought that the savvy Max eschewed the Nazi government's equally cruel ambitions.
Louis, the eventual world heavyweight champ, beat Schmeling in a rematch two years later. The men would later reunite outside the ring, once again under less than ideal circumstances. There's even a play about it, called In This Corner, and it's in a world-premiere run at The Old Globe Theatre right now. The piece is loopy with historical nuances, from Joe's womanizing to the country's racist bent (Louis was black, as you're probably aware). But while author Steve Drukman clearly knows how to write that kind of subtext, he's neglected a huge piece of the saga. The omission takes a lot of luster from the men's mutual kindliness, especially at the climax, where it matters the most.By all means, see this play for its production values, which range from decent to damn good. One scene with an implicitly gay Adolf Hitler (T. Ryder Smith) practically steals the show. There's some great physical contrast between Louis and his trainer Blackburn (Dion Graham and Al White) as the crusty veteran counsels the befuddled would-be warrior—“One good punch,” he snorts with the vim of a bull elephant, “is worth a hundred bad ones.” Graham makes a pretty good central figure, a sad casualty of the celebrity spotlight. Tyler Micoleku's lighting design is as attentive as you'll find, adroitly supporting the story without taking on a life of its own.
It's the climax that doesn't follow suit. Schmeling (Rufus Collins), later an ultra-successful Coca-Cola exec, always considered Louis a personal friend and would visit him in a Denver psych ward in 1970 amid Louis' drug addiction and clinical paranoia—but the scene reads flat and awkward, like a parley between a kindly insurance man and his marginalized client (watch Schmeling offer Louis his business card in exactly that manner).
And in a play with so many nods to the past, one more would have fueled this crucial scene: To this day, Schmeling's the only titleholder to assume the crown on a disqualification (in 1930, Jack Sharkey cuffed Max a little too close to the ol' sleighbells, severely hurting him). That's an enormous piece of boxing lore, vital in the path to the rematch and filled with grist for small talk between the men. Without it, director Ethan McSweeny's hands are tied, though he does make do with what Drukman gives him.
Louis, born Joe Louis Barrow in Lafayette, Ala., died in 1981 at age 66, hours after he attended the Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick title fight. The workaday Schmeling would stick it out until age 99, passing in 2005. In This Corner is a watchable homage to the men and the colorful story that marks their careers. But for all its sense of history, it never quite reconciles itself in the final round. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 10. In This Corner runs through Feb. 10 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $46-$59. 619-23-GLOBE or www.oldglobe.org.
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