The boxer, a 37-year-old named Tony “Tiny” Whitaker (d. l. Hopkins), appears at a New York gym. Ike Mellis (Bill Patton), the grizzled gym manager, takes his money but not his guff. After considerable verbal sparring, we discover that Tiny has tracked down Ike following the death of his mother. His resentment has the potential to explode into violence towards his father, but soon the two begin reconciliation.
The script has one significant weakness. It’s never clear why Tiny should become a better boxer after meeting his father. When Ike tells Tiny to focus his anger into a punching bag, it appears to be the start of some serious Oedipal manipulation. But we find out later that Tiny used that tactic long before he confronted Ike. And since they soon become so comfortable around one another, it’s difficult to imagine how the kill-the-father visualization trick is going to work anyway.
There are no further nuggets of coaching wizardry to come. Tiny, in fact, reveals far more technical knowledge of the fight game than his dad. There’s nothing like the combination of taunts and technique Burgess Meredith put into the character of Mickey in “Rocky.”
However, the actors certainly have the look and talk down. Hopkins’ athletic grace — not to mention the gap between his front teeth — transforms Tiny into a believable journeyman fighter. Patton has the mannerisms of a quarrelsome trainer at the end of his career. And though Stephen W. Ryan is a bit miscast as the connected gym owner Fungi, he brings an oiliness to the role.
It’s not often that Richmond theatergoers get a crack at a work from such an eminent playwright that so few people have seen. Horovitz’s dialogue has the rhythm and punch of a master craftsman. The back-and-forth jabs are punctuated with sly humor. And there’s one clever nuance: Ike speaks as an illiterate wise guy. His college-educated son has a more polished way of speaking. As they spend time together, Tiny begins to pick up his father’s speech, including an aversion to contractions.
Taking advantage of the high-speed dialogue, Director Morrie Piersol dials up the pace. Unfortunately, all three characters seem to run at the exact same speed with almost no variation. The play too often skips along the surface without allowing us moments to absorb the meaning beneath the lines.
Steve Gerlach’s dark and grungy set is accented by Tiny’s red boxing gloves at the opening of the play. The transitions between gym and ring are seamless. David McLain’s lights are particularly effective during the fight scenes.
“Fast Hands” has the raw material of a top-flight play within it. But it’s missing some of the emotional underpinnings – and, frankly, the brutality — that might turn it into a contender. Like the D’Amato-Tyson story, it’s not the gritty fairy tale it might’ve been. S
“Fast Hands” continues through Nov. 23 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets cost $20 and can be reserved by calling 355-2001.