In July, Mike Tyson tweeted: “People love boxing because it’s a metaphor for life.” And that’s exactly how Brett Neveu uses the sport in his newest play “The Opponent” at The Red Orchid Theater.
In the first act, amateur boxer Donell (a charismatic Kamal Angelo Bolden) visits his former trainer, Tre (a jaded Guy Van Swearingen), before Donell’s first big match against an established prizefighter. Bolden balances Donell’s assuredness and insecurity well as Donell embarks on the familiar struggle of “young buck seeks validation from emotionally unavailable father figure”. Donell’s longing for mentorship is heartbreaking but why Donell feels so attached to Tre in particular never becomes clear. Swearingen puts on a great show through Tre, with a wonderful southern drawl and mysterious reticence, but Neveu leaves much to be desired regarding the development of his character.
Neveu writes incredibly realistic dialog, but Swearingen speaks it too eagerly, always chomping at the bit and reminding you his words are preordained, not spontaneous. And despite the smart script, old clichés still echo loudly: if you’re knocked down, you have to get back up again; you gotta roll with the punches.
Set designer, Joey Wade, impresses with his dingy gym and boxing ring, complete with scuffed pads and fraying tape, on which Donell and Tre fire their fancy footwork (courtesy of boxing consultant Al Ortiz). Director Karen Kessler keeps the actors on their toes, literally. The two men are in almost constant motion, making their pauses and silences all the more powerful.
Overall it’s a well-crafted play that feels real. There’s no doubt about Neveu’s talent; his light touches are laudable. Throughout the show there’s palpable tension brewing right beneath the surface, but more must come up for air before it packs the winning punch.