It was only a few seasons back that Rocky Balboa made his Broadway debut in a very expensive and not too terrible musical based on the movie about the Philly beefsteak with a mug’s heart. The show will be remembered for its hyperrealism: microphones in the boxing gloves made every punch land with a visceral crack as drops of blood spewed, beads of sweat flew and, most impressively, the front center orchestra shifted back so that the entire Winter Garden theater could be transformed into a Las Vegas-style boxing ring. All that realism in the service of a flop, simply because there’s no way to compete with a movie by pretending to be one.
The Royale, by contrast — Marco Ramirez’ good new play that opened Monday at Lincoln Center — also turns a theater into a boxing arena, yet it’s anything but realistic. The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, with its steeply raked audience focusing attention on a deceptively small playing area, already feels like a mini-colosseum (it was originally called The Forum, after all) and lends itself to intimate sport. Set designer Nick Vaughan enfolds the space in slatted wood with short stairways and visible ropes — when I first entered the Newhouse, I thought it was a gallows. It’s not.
A promoter and announcer named Max (John Lavelle in carny barker mode) introduces the fight we’ve been waiting for, between the cocky but nervous young newcomer Fish (McKinley Belcher III) and the undefeated champ Jay (Khris Davis). Both are African American, the time is the early part of the last century and of course any championship owned by either of these spectacularly skilled men has the word “Negro” attached to it.
The fight ensues and Fish gives Jay a much tougher bout than he bargained for — so much so that Jay hires him as his sparring partner, to the amazement of his trainer Wynton (the very fine Clarke Peters). Jay lives for one thing: a match with the World Heavyweight Champion, recently retired. Wynton is even more amazed when the white champion agrees to the fight — for 90 percent of the gate — and Jay unhesitantly agrees to the terms.
The Royale is based on the true story of the black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who triumphed over the recently retired white champion Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. They went 14 rounds, and that’s the clip attached to this review.
The realism ends in these basic facts. Ramirez allows the relationship between Fish and Jay to deepen as they train for the match. Much of the dialogue among the four men has the rhythm of jazz; the words and actions punctuated by syncopated clapping and stomping. In the first-scene match, the two boxers never touch one another, and in the final scene (when the ropes actually do come out), the white champion is played by Jay’s sister Nina (Montego Glover, as wonderful here in a mostly thankless role as she was in the Tony-winning Memphis.) Nina has come to plead with Jay to throw the fight because she can foresee the deadly consequences of a black athlete beating a white athlete. (Which, in the case of the Johnson-Jeffries fight, proved to be true. Riots erupted across the country.)
Rachel Chavkin, an inventive and keen director best known for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, knows her immersive theater and she also, on the evidence, honors writers. So do the design team, which includes, along with Nick Vaughn includes the superb smoky yet intense lighting by Austin R. Smith and the beautiful period clothes by Dede M. Ayite. The Royale has heart and a conscience, and it’s unquestionably the work of a writer still finding his voice. Like his champion Jay, he’s got style.