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A CurtainUp Review
Fighting Words

Sometimes you have to act happy before you really are
---Mrs. Davies
 Pilar Witherspoon, Marin Ireland (background), Jayne Houdyshell
Pilar Witherspoon, Marin Ireland (background), Jayne Houdyshell (Photo: Joan Marcus )

Marin Ireland, Jayne Houdyshell and Pilar Witherspoon bring the three women of Sunil Kuruvilla 's Fighting Words to radiant life. As we left the Peter Sharpe Theater where the fledgling Underwood Theater Company is giving this fact-inspired tale its New York premiere my companion asked me which one I thought stood out. I couldn't really answer him since each actor's performance is as rich as the Bara brith cakes (Welsh tea cakes) baked by Mrs. Davies (Houdyshell) and Mia (Witherspoon) and impishly sampled by her younger sister Peg (Ireland).

The honey iced cakes -- with some good luck tears dripped into the batter courtesy of a cut in half onion -- are to be part of the festivities at the local gym where some hundred women will be watching a local man, Johnny Owen, compete in an international championship fight. Usually, the gym is a bastion for these women's men, miners who, as Mia puts it "spend their days on the ground in the mines and their nights in the gym trying to knock each other back down into the darkness." Johnny Owen's big fight represents hope and a bit of glory for the entire populace of the mired in poverty town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. That's why the men have all flown off to Los Angeles, hopefully to share Owen's victory over the Mexican champion Lupe Pintor.

The fight and its outcome are part of actual boxing history and Merthyr Tydfil was really Johnny Owen's home town. The time is 1980 when the many years of Merthyr Tydfil as the capital of iron, steel and coal are ending, and before it managed to attract new industries and tourists.

As Johnny Owens is never seen in this play, except through the two sisters and their landlady, so the title is as much about the words that reveal what Johnny's drive to be more than a local boxer means to Mrs. Davies, Mia and Peg.

Mrs. Davies, a midwife, was in attendance at Johnny's birth. As she helped the scrawny baby to survive, so she has fought to maintain her marital equilibrium through years of emotional shadow boxing. Mia, who as a would-be BBC announcer knows a thing or two about using words, has coached Johnny so that he can handle himself with the press when he gets to Los Angeles. For her Johnny's fight is tied to her own conflict between staying in a confining marriage or reaching for the broader horizons of a career away from Berthyr Tydfil. As for Peg, she would today be able to be a boxer in her own right, but this being 1980 and a still backward community, she has instead focused her dreams on Johnny, hoping to move from being his sparring partner to being his wife.

The play is somewhat awkwardly constructed but very nicely staged. The opening is a replay of the penultimate scene in which we see an almost catatonic Mia and Mrs. Davies in the gym after their television party has ended (in short, after the fight in Los Angeles has been fought). By rolling out appropriate props, the wide open gym space turns into Mrs. Davies' house. From a backyard wash line where Peg shadow boxes with sheets and towels (a terrifically choreographed scene, masterfully executed by Ireland) the action moves to the kitchen. Here the women flash back and forth from talk about the fight in Los Angeles to earlier recollections, like Mrs. Davies' courtship and honeymoon.

Ultimately, it is Mrs. Davies who is the character we get to know most completely. The younger women's daily routines are somewhat vague with no mention of jobs or how Mia learned to speak well enough to audition for a BBC job. Yet, the performances are strong enough to overlook these holes and some scenes are, if you'll forgive the pun, knockouts: the previously mentioend "laundry fight", the mock interviews in which Peg plays Johnny Owens to Mia's BBC reporter, Mrs. Davis crying into the Bara brith cake batter infuse much needed humor into the grim picture of lives of desperate coping and mostly unfulfilled hopes.

This second offering from Underwood isn't quite as sharp-edged as their first offering, Buicks (review). Yet, like that play, Fighting Words offers theater goers a thoughtful story, smartly staged and superbly acted -- all in a handsome, conveniently located space with all-around perfect sightlines, and at a ticket price that does not shut out those on tight entertainment budgets. I'm ready, as you're likely to be, to follow Mrs. Davies' cake baking trick and cut an onion in half to drip a few good luck tears on this young company's next producing round.

Written by Sunil Kuruvilla
Directed by Liz Diamond
Cast: Marin Ireland, Jayne Houdyshell, Pilar Witherspoon.
Set Design: Tobin Ost
Costume Design: Linda Ross
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Underwood Theater at Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons,416 West 42nd Street (9th/ 10th Avenues) (212) 279-4200.
Web site: www.underwoodtheater.org
2/06/04 through 3/07/04; opening 2/15/04.
Tuesday through Saturday 8:00 PM and Sunday at 7:00 PM - - $15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on Feb. 13th press performance

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