Boxing Lessons

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

John Bunzel’s new play BOXING LESSONS begins in the chaotic aftermath of the death of a much-beloved writer.  His nude body was found in the waters close to his San Juan Islands cabin and is currently occupying a freezer at the local fish market as the island is enveloped in smoke and ash due to an ongoing forest fire.

Unsurprisingly, his family and friends descend on the cabin in full damage control mode. No suicide note was found, so they need to search his home for clues and determine how best to spin his death to the media. They certainly don’t want to adversely affect the sales of his Christmas classic, “Suck My Thumb." They also desperately need to find his will.

Craven relatives vying to get the most out of their dead family members have fueled many a drama and numerous comedies as well. Bunzel’s play is definitely the latter, and he has carefully set up potential comic fireworks with quirky characters who can barely tolerate each other and a long series of secrets that will be divulged over the course of 90 minutes.

Perhaps too many secrets. At least for the tone of the play. With his venal cast of characters and the emphasis on sexual peccadillos and death, Bunzel seems to aim for black comedy. But the play’s humor is more gray than black. The lines may have venom, but they never pierce the skin, nor do the situations ever truly feel dangerous. The result is more in the comfortable vein of a British sex farce. But those plays depend on normal characters dealing with an absurd situation. BOXING LESSONS’ over-the- top characters seem quite at home in the plot’s pandemonium.

Director Jack Stehlin keeps the performances sharp, the lines crackling, and the play running at full throttle. Kudos as well to another brilliant set from John Iacovelli –  convincingly cluttered, but just south of hoarder, with the numerous seascapes bringing their own zany charm to the cabin.

The cast is talented and play their roles with conviction. Eve Danzeisen’s no-nonsense Judy is great at keeping secrets, particularly her own. Luke McClure’s Ned whines at an appropriately annoying decibel level, while as Meg, the mercenary ex-wife, Susan Wilder makes every line count. Stephen Tyler Howell makes his odd, on-the-spectrum Steve compelling, even in silence. The man no one wanted to show up is Bruce Nozick’s Billy, and he revels in the character’s crudity. Perhaps the only likable character is Eric Curtis Johnson’s, Sherriff Bob. He's sweetly bewildered man who seems to have stuck around after “Northern Exposure’s” final episode.

While I find the comedy in BOXING LESSONS forced, the audience I saw it with laughed heartily throughout. The show has extended its run. Obviously, there are many who disagree with me.

New American Theatre    April 26 – June 30, 2019