note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi
Gene Tunney … Jack Wetherall
Receiving its world premiere at Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre, David E. Lane’s TUNNEY/SHAKESPEARE IN SIX ROUNDS takes the year’s prize for originality: an evening of Yale lectures on the Bard’s plays delivered by Gene Tunney (1897-1978), the undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Mr. Tunney’s discovery and gradual understanding of Shakespeare’s genius gave him an ever-evolving philosophy towards life both in and out of the boxing ring, culminating in his self-realization through the character Coriolanus: two men who achieved their goals yet failed to win their public’s affection (by knocking out the reigning champ Jack Dempsey in 1927, backed by the still-controversial “Long Count” that allowed him to do so, Mr. Tunney became the unpopular hero and Mr. Dempsey, the now-beloved defeated).
Mr. Tunney lectured, only once, while still a young man; Mr. Lane offers an older, middle-aged champ, full of Bard-insights and self-reflections, backed by film clips of Mr. Dempsey disfiguring Jess Willard in the ring and the Dempsey-Tunney encounter. Mr. Lane’s monologue is the most intelligent, knowledgeable playwriting to be heard in a long, long time; the proof lies in Jack Wetherall giving a fascinating, layered performance --- a gentle man, but trained to attack and defend on various levels; I doubt Mr. Tunney himself was as eloquent as Mr. Wetherall is nor as nakedly vulnerable (especially in a 1950s setting) but, then, to quote Mr. Lane from an interview, “I’d finished the play by the time I saw the lecture, and that was for the best. A recreation from transcripts would’ve been, let’s say, not too rewarding for an audience.” My only nitpick is that TUNNEY/SHAKESPEARE IN SIX ROUNDS makes its point in the first lecture --- how a playwright changed a boxer’s life --- and it can only deepen into a character study than as a progressive drama (on the night I attended, there were only five “rounds” offered instead of “six”; still, the evening went on longer than it should). Fortunately, Mr. Wetherall is compelling, throughout, and since cold weather and thought-provoking nights go hand-in-glove, Mr. Lane’s world-premiere becomes a warming hearth for both boxing aficionados and those wishing to brush up their Shakespeare.