A gentle Caribbean breeze gets caught in a storm of violent masculinity in Man in the Ring, Michael Cristofer’s play about the life of boxer Emile Griffith. In a first-rate production directed by Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen; Rent), the legendary prizefighter’s past, present, and future battle it out in an unforgiving tempest of celebrity, identity, and legacy.
Griffith, who emigrated from Saint Thomas as a teenager and worked gleefully as a Manhattan hat maker, is best remembered for a 1962 match against Benny Paret, in which 17 punches in five seconds landed Paret in the hospital, only to be pronounced dead a few days later. Griffith, who only entered the world of boxing through outside pressure; who, privately bisexual, went into that fateful fight blinded by rage at his opponent mocking him with homophobic slurs; who failed to understand why anyone would want to see two men fight, never recovered from the night’s aftermath, descending into trauma-related dementia before dying penniless in 2013.
Working within a rather traditional rise-and-fall biography, Cristofer finds the most to say about queerness itself, and how it shades Griffith’s relationships with himself and others. He is, to his core, a joyful, loving man, attentive to his mother (a devoted Starla Benford), with whom he has an electric relationship. His relationship with Luis (Victor Almanzar) is one of the best sketched portrayals of homoerotic love I’ve seen on a stage, equal parts lustful and tender. That he inhabits the life of a successful fighter seems as much a surprise to him as to the men he encounters in dimly lit bars, who coarsely ask him how the devil could make one man so strong yet so pretty.
The legendary prizefighter, with all of his contradictions, is a figure out of a Greek tragedy, and his dualities are made visible in the casting of Kyle Vincent Terry and John Douglas Thompson as the man at young and old age, respectively. Facing himself for nearly the duration of the play, Terry and Thompson play Griffith as both sides of the same withered coin; a life-loving smile joins the two performances as they diverge in one man’s youthful turbulence and another’s rueful nostalgia. As the late-in-life Griffith becomes lost in a haze of memories, Greif stages a mosaic of life as a spectator sport, complete with a chorus of Caribbean songs that keep the fighter’s roots at surface level.
The music, supervised by Michael McElroy, is almost always well-employed, though it sometimes veers the production into musical theater territory it need not enter. Nonetheless, the use of Spanish lullabies give the production such a delicate air of unvarnished innocence, it is impossible to resist, especially as the older Griffith clings to them as a baby does his mother.
David Zinn’s scenic and Ben Stanton’s lighting designs pack the show with a startling one-two punch, with metal staircases framing the action, which is often punctuated with flashes of light that act as photographers’ bulbs, but play as the blinding effects of a life lived receiving punches, not the least of which came in 1992, when Griffith was beaten within an inch of his life while exiting a Manhattan gay bar.
Battered from years of physical and emotional trauma, Griffith never was able to reconcile the many aspects of his life, and Man in the Ring provides no tidy ending. What it does provide, quite beautifully, is the clear-eyed meditation on Griffith’s troubled life that he was never able to accomplish himself.
MAN IN THE RING. THROUGH 12.22 AT CALDERWOOD PAVILION AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG