A sensational performance by John Lithgow as a washed-up fighter, and a choice all-around production make "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which came to the Martin Beck last evening, the most exciting thing to happen on Broadway in a long while.
This is the Rod Serling drama on which the 1956 teleplay and subsequent movie were based, and which was unearthed and produced for the first time last winter by New Haven's Long Wharf Theater. This is essentially the same production, but with a couple of important changes, the most significant one finding George Segal in the role of the beleaguered manager.
The two-and-a-half-hour, multi-scened play is an elemental force. Watching it is like watching a peerless B-movie, and so indigenous is it to its time and place - the '50s and a seedy prizefight environment - that we seem to see it in black-and-white in spite of the dusty, muted colors of Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's wonderfully evocative and fluid scenery.
Aside from his punchily-written scenes, so accurately steeped in the vernacular, the late Serling was shrewd enough to construct a fight play without fight scenes, which only the films can re-create triumphantly. In fact, when we meet Harlan "Mountain" McClintock (Lithgow) in the opening scene, he is a bloody wreck being carried into his grubby dressing room after his 11th and, on penalty of blindness, final bout.
Thereafter, he winds up in the protection of a sympathetic social worker (Maria Tucci) while his debt-ridden manager, Maish Resnick (Segal), struggles with his conscience as he is offered crummy road-show bouts by a nickels-and-dimes manager named Leo "The Lion Hearted" Loomis (Eugene Troobnick) or, worse, comic "rassling" matches by a more slimy specimen named Perelli (Cosmo F. Allegretti). All the while, Mountain's laconic and loyal trainer, Army (David Proval), takes in every move made in the behind-the-scenes conniving.
Does all this sound familiar, aside from your possibly earlier acquaintance with the teleplay and motion picture? Well, there's also the aging whore with a heart of gold named Golda (Joyce Ebert), as well as all the usual hangers-on in the fight game. But Serling handles all this convincingly. And Arvin Brown, the Long Wharf's artistic director, has staged it brilliantly, whipping all the time-tested elements together with panache and an extraordinary eye for the telling detail.
The towering, lumbering Lithgow isn't as ugly as the script would have a punched-out fighter appear, and he really couldn't be in what is essentially a heroic role in a play with an ironically heroic finish. But he is utterly believable in a powerful, versatile, enormously appealing, and electric performance. Segal matches him beautifully as the surrogate-father/manager of the Tennessee hillbilly heavyweight against whom he bet to lose in four rounds, whereas the valiant Mountain, proud of never having gone into the tank during his career, stood helplessly on his feet until close to eight. Proval is a joy as the trainer who is, among other things, the most finicky of card players. The engaging Tucci and flashily overripe Ebert, along with all the other marvelous stereotypes (these include the punchdrunk denizens of the neighborhood bar who keep re-enacting their great moments in the ring), are as colorful as you could wish for in the quick brush strokes the author has given them.
In addition to Kellogg's excellent sets (they work much better at the Beck than they did at the Long Wharf), Bill Walker's costumes, and Ron Wallace's lighting, B.H. Barry's handling of the stumblebum's shadow boxing must be given its due.
"Requiem for a Heavyweight" gives this flaccid Broadway season some much-needed muscle, and Lithgow gives an incandescent prize performance.
Just as in boxing, for success in the theater, timing is everything. Requiem for a Heavyweight is an old-fashioned melodrama that has turned up at a moment when the stage is not set for an old-fashioned melodrama. And not even a decently tearjerking production, an extravagantly blustering performance from John Lithgow, and a wholeheartedly sleazy portrayal from George Segal can stop the march of time's effect on taste.
Rod Serling's play, which arrived at the Martin Beck Theater last night, is about 30 years too late. Maybe 40. But with an uppercut, a miss is as good as a mile.
The work, something of a battered champion itself, has had quite a history. Originally conceived as a TV drama, it was commissioned for Playhouse 90 in 1956. Later adapted for the theater, before it could get to Broadway it was made into a modestly successful movie with Anthony Quinn.
Requiem for a Heavyweight is a great title, although it was possibly influenced by William Faulkner's Reqiuem for a Nun, which came out four years earlier - just as the movie, in its tone and atmosphere, seemed a contrived spin-off of Robert Wise's The Set-Up.
Still, Requiem for a Heavyweight, whether stolen, borrowed, or found, remains a great title. As a friendly tip to producers, when a title represents the best writing of the evening, as a rule of thumb, the play itself is in trouble.
"Mountain" McClintock is an over-the-hill fighter doing battle with a cliche. Thirty-three years old, he has had 111 pro fights, and once ranked fifth in the division. He was, as he keeps telling himself and us, "almost a champion."
Now, as the play opens, he is carried in after a fight, an insensate gladiator, a heap of blood and guts. The Boxing Commission doctor says he will never fight again; will never get another license.
But the boy was game to the last. He went eight rounds. This was unfortunate because his manager, Maish Resnick, put all the money he could muster on Mountain going down for the count inside four.
And now Maish is unable to pay a little debt he owes to a guy who has given him a contract for a new fighter. Maish is in trouble. At best, his face is in for rearrangement unless he can come up with the money.
There is a way out. Maish could sign up Mountain to a wrestling contract, cashing in on his name, and having him "parade around an arena like a carnival geek."
Meanwhile, Mountain has to go to an employment agency - where a young woman running it, Grace Miller, takes a shine to him. Ugly and punch-drunk though he may be. She wants to give him a job at a boys' camp.
Maish, on the other hand, down to his last resource, needs him to take up the less than noble art of wrestling. Conflict and much heavy breathing results.
Indeed at times Lithgow breathes so heavily he sounds like a berserk steam engine. In the course of his performance Lithgow, who is possibly auditioning for Lenny in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, does everything a severely disturbed, punch-drunk moron could do except chew the scenery, and if I were that scenery I would be worried.
This is to acting what a kazoo is to a violin. He needn't worry - the audience loved it. There is a big market out there for kazoo playing.
By contrast the suavely sneaky Segal appears a model for subtlety, while Maria Tucci as the oddly motived Grace has the particular grace to look faintly embarassed - particularly in a love scene that could make an episode from The Twilight Zone look like high noon.
As Maish's sidekick, an intermittantly decent handler called Army, David Proval reveals a gravelly voice betokening sincerity, and a bewildered look proclaiming innocence.
Arvin Brown's staging does its best, but what good is a best when the play scarcely gets to the weigh-in, let alone the main bout.
The scenery by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg at least looks economical, although I take leave to doubt that in a dressing room in 1956 there would be posters advertising Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling.
All in all, his Requiem is more of a cause for funeral mourning than a knockout, and at best looks like a play in search of a film script.
A pity - because you can do a good play about boxing. Remember The Great White Hope, or even, at least better than this, Golden Boy. But this isn't even a contender.
Watching John Lithgow's heavyweight performance in ''Requiem for a Heavyweight,'' one desperately wants to believe there's just as much heft to the newly arrived stage version of Rod Serling's 1956 teleplay. There isn't, but fans of the gifted star may want to see what he's up to at the Martin Beck these nights. An actor who has often done his best work playing athletes - from an English rugby player (''The Changing Room'') to a transsexual football player (''The World According to Garp'') - Mr. Lithgow is a seething figure of bruised flesh and wounded pride in the role of Serling's pugilist, Harlan ''Mountain'' McClintock.
McClintock, as viewers of other versions of this work know, is a Tennessee-born hillbilly who finds himself washed up after 14 years in the professional ring. He's an outsized Quasimodo - ''a freak'' who, like everyone else on God's earth, wants only to be loved. Mr. Lithgow amply fulfills both sides of the role. With his battered face, cotton-mouthed accent and hunched, loping walk, he is indeed a Neanderthal or, in the play's lingo, a slab of meat. But, blessedly, the meat isn't ham: The protagonist's warmth emerges gradually, not slobberingly, in this meticulous performance.
The actor conveys the boxer's incongruity of body and soul by always keeping his character's dim brain a few beats behind his heart. This is a man to whom words are more frightening than punches, and Mr. Lithgow finds terror, rather than cheap tears or laughs, in the boxer's pathetic, childlike stupidity. When McClintock is aroused to express strong feelings - to his serpentine manager (George Segal) or to the spinster who earns his trust (Maria Tucci) - the arrival of each sentiment is preceeded by a flushing of the face and painful, spastic stammers. Once the clumsy words do arrive, this Mountain erupts volcanically, as if the mere act of self-expression were a hard-won spiritual triumph.
It's too bad that we couldn't see Mr. Lithgow in the 90-minute TV version of ''Requiem'' instead of in this two-and-a-half-hour theatrical rendition. Mr. Serling, who died in 1975, wrote the stage script himself but never saw it produced. If he had, he might have picked up a blue pencil. Even at its taut original length, the teleplay's dated melodramatic seams would burst when stretched to fill a contemporary Broadway evening. In this flabby form, ''Heavyweight'' must lumber about the ring.
For the first half hour or so, it's fun to soak up the atmosphere - much of which is more redolent of television's putative Golden Age than of the boxing world. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's entertaining set, which takes us to the delapidated bowels of sports arenas and seedy hotels, has the visual texture of a black and white kinescope. Mr. Serling's language, with its heaping portions of ring jargon and over-the-top dramatic crescendos (''You're garbage!'' or ''You'll rot in hell!''), takes us back to the era when young writers still wanted to be Clifford Odets, or, failing that, Paddy Chayefsky.
But such corny, nostalgic charms pall once we realize that every point - and seemingly every other line - is incessantly repeated. It's as if the play were a receptacle for all of the television version's outtakes (as well as for those lines too racy for the 1950's airwaves). Some information - the number of fights in McClintock's career, his 1948 professional ranking, the size of his manager's gambling debt - is reintroduced almost every five minutes; some declarations (''I was almost heavyweight champion of the world!'') become litanies. More than a few scenes could be excised entirely - especially those featuring a brassy prostitute (Joyce Ebert) who delivers messages (''All of us get raped somewhere along the line.'') as if she were teaching sociology at night school.
The thin plot, spread thinner by the padding, all but evaporates. Its major conflict is scarcely enlivened by the cigar-chomping Mr. Segal, whose single note of brash cynicism dramatizes none of the manager's sleazy inner workings. While we wait for this self-described ''pimp'' to decide whether or not to sell out his washed up fighter to the bottom-rung wrestling circuit, we must also put up with the ludicrous love story. Try as Miss Tucci might to inject something genuine into the good woman who wants to rescue McClintock, the heroine remains a virginal windup doll (named Grace and dressed in white, no less). When Grace welcomes the hulking fighter into her candlelit bedroom in Act II, the inevitably campy results suggest a rematch between Fay Wray and King Kong.
The director Arvin Brown, who will soon be represented on Broadway by his lovely production of ''Joe Egg,'' provides neither speed nor subtlety here. The many supporting pugs and mugs are all overripe, calling undue attention to the anachronistic ethnic stereotypes, and some of the rowdy bar scenes could be parodies of ''The Iceman Cometh.'' But there's still the star, winning every round he conceivably can. If this isn't the most volatile performance ever to grace a Rod Serling tale, it's only because it must compete with Mr. Lithgow's own appearance in the movie version of the writer's truly lasting achievement, ''The Twilight Zone.''