November 15, 2007

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One-man play turns audience into students
Boxer Gene Tunney is subject of playwright’s first
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

David E. Lane has the kind of program bio that rootless post-college types love. His bachelor’s degrees are in philosophy and documentary filmmaking. His résumé includes “waiter, roofer, painter, screenplay doctor, substitute philosophy lecturer, custom furniture designer, dishwasher, replacement window installer, baker’s asst., paralegal, vinyl-siding salesman; he also owned and operated a landscaping business, ran an acting/directing workshop in New York City, taught Stanley Kaplan SAT prep courses, taught English in Paris, was a street vendor of self-made toys and jewelry in Mexico City, and worked on a fishing trawler.”

Lane, 41, acted off-Broadway when he was 15, and his Manifest Content was screened at the NYC Film Festival. But he’d never written a play.

On Sunday, Nov. 18, the professional Merrimack Repertory Theatre premieres Lane’s first, Tunney/Shakespeare in Six Rounds.

The play is about boxer Gene Tunney, who read Shakespeare before his 1927 fight to win the World Heavyweight Champion title. Tunney left home at 15, joined the Marines during World War I and ended up a multimillionaire, Lane said.

“He fought Jack Dempsey, who was considered absolutely unbeatable.... He managed to win on points twice,” Lane said. The “neutral corner rule” was created because Dempsey would continue pounding opponents into the canvas. “If you watch these fights, it’s really horrifying to see,” Lane said. Fight footage will be projected during the play.

In the 1927 fight, Tunney was on the mat for more than 10 seconds but the referee was arguing with Dempsey, who wouldn’t go to his corner. Tunney won $1 million. That fight marked the first time radios were networked to broadcast an event simultaneously across the U.S.

People hated Tunney.

“He didn’t act like a boxer,” Lane said. He didn’t smoke or swear. He corrected the grammar of sports journalists. Tunney was using boxing to move up in society and acted somewhat pretentious, Lane said. His other sin was retiring as a champion. Part of the drama of boxing is that “virtually all of the great heavyweights stayed in the ring too long,” Lane said. But Tunney quit, married a Carnegie heiress and “took over Wall Street.” He was friends with George Bernard Shaw and Thornton Wilder. His son was a U.S. senator.

“It’s a really impressive life, but he was so … despised that he didn’t really get the credit for his accomplishments,” Lane said.

The tale “bears some strong structural similarities to the Coriolanus character,” Tunney said, referring to Shakespeare’s tragedy about a Roman leader. Lane saw a way into a play when he remembered that once, in his late 20s, Tunney guest lectured on Shakespeare at Yale.

“I wanted Tunney to be able to tell the story in an organic setting,” Lane said. In Tunney/Shakespeare, Lane has created the Tunney character as a middle-aged man teaching a semester of Shakespeare’s plays. The audience is the class.

Lane has penned a number of screenplays but “got tired of writing scripts that weren’t going anywhere,” he said. He thought a one-man play might have a better shot. He squeezed in the work late at night and on weekends while his son was a newborn and he was working as a general contractor. It immediately went into production.

“It was a total fluke thing,” Lane said.

Jack Wetherall, who plays Tunney, got the script through a few layers of friends of friends, and showed it to Charles Towers, MRT’s artistic director.

“I’m really curious to see what [Wetherall] makes of it ... I know he’s an amazing Shakespearean actor,” Lane said. The actor’s highest-profile roles were in Elephant Man on Broadway and as Vic on Showtime’s TV series Queer as Folk. Wetherall started rehearsing the play with Canadian director Robin Phillips in Toronto, but MRT had trouble securing a work visa. The show will now be a collaboration between the production team and Wetherall under Towers, Friedrich said. It will be a long-distance enterprise for Towers, who is directing in New York.

MRT is promoting the play to schools.

“We definitely do want to try to reach a younger audience to keep theater alive,” said MRT’s Erin Freidrich. The group offers $15 tickets to college students.

As for Lane, his first script got him commission for a play about the poet H.D. — Hilda Doolittle. He’s stopped working as a general contractor, sold his Harlem home and moved to Connecticut. The one-woman show will consist of her talking to Sigmund Freud, who psychoanalyzed her. “It’s good story,” Lane said.


Tunney/Shakespeare in Six Rounds
Where: Merrimack Repertory Theater, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass., (978) 654-4MRT, www.merrimackrep.org.
Dates: Nov. 15-Dec. 9
Times: Wednesday through Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.; plus Tuesday, Nov. 20, at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 21, at 2 p.m.; no performance on Thanksgiving, Nov. 22.
Tickets: $26-$56. Previews until Nov. 18 discounted. Pay what you will at the Thursday, Nov. 15, preview; post-show forum with the artistic team follows. Discounts available for students, seniors and groups.