The 1936 and 1938 heavyweight boxing title bouts between Joe Louis, the first African-American superstar athlete, and the German fighter Max Schmeling, to whom Hitler once pointed as the model Nazi citizen, are a fascinating, almost archetypal, piece of history. Even for those of us who view an hour watching ESPN as punishment, what could be more intriguing than this grand morality tale about the noble underdog who is defeated by a Teutonic villain, then returns two years later to win redemption?
ends January 30
But when the lights come up on Punch Drunk, the new play by solo performer Ethan Sandler and his director, Josie Dickson, who could possibly be a more unlikely narrator? For Sandler is neither African-American nor Teutonic, nor does he look like much of a boxer. He's a compact Jewish guy from Mercer Island with a clean-cut comedian's face and two small earrings. He stands facing us with his hands in old-fashioned boxing gloves, looking entirely uncomfortable—as if the real actor had taken ill and asked the stage manager to fill in.
In reality, this is all a brilliant sucker punch. Sandler's meditation on these bouts is skillful misdirection, a series of nine short scenes in which he circles 'round and 'round his subject like a lightweight hoping to wear down his heavier opponent. His jabs all focus on how this bout has affected his life and imagination over the years. Sandler cites his revenge fantasies in high school, his brief career as a football captain, a chance encounter with two thugs
in a Burger King, and an incident at the
primate house that reveals a humiliating truth: When it comes to status, a gorilla might actually consider you to be an inferior male.
While much of the show is extremely funny (including a bravura history of great boxers, performed entirely by fingers posing on a tabletop), Sandler makes some serious points. He uses quotations from sportswriters comparing Louis' great predecessor Jack Johnson to a savage just emerged from the jungle, as well as Howard Sackler's play The Great White Hope, to analyze the still prevalent assumption that African Americans are "more suited" to sports involving physical violence.
Like a theatrical "Prufrock," Punch Drunk ultimately ends up being about the decision not to act, the opportunity not taken, but also about respecting the ability of those who do. The show ends with a slow-motion film of the last seconds of the second bout, and suddenly the myth becomes much more interesting because Sandler, in detailing how it lives in and shapes the imaginations of generations of spectators, fans, and other voluntary and involuntary students of the Sweet Science, has made it so much more real.