After you leave the New York Theatre Workshop’s super-slick Off Broadway production of Fetch Clay, Make Man — playwright Will Power’s truth-based account of the 1965 meeting and burgeoning friendship of boxer Muhammad Ali and faded movie star Stepin Fetchit — you’re sure to find yourself Googling Fetchit. That’s partly because he’s a fascinating, divisive figure: He was the first black film actor to receive a screen credit, but he made his name, and his millions, by playing a then-comic stereotype — the lazy, slow-witted ”shufflin’ coon” (Power’s words). It’s also because K. Todd Freeman, despite being a shade too young for the role, plays him to near perfection, with an almost impossibly empathetic mix of hubris and self-loathing. Unfortunately, the other reason you’re liable to turn to Google is that after more than two hours, Will Power’s play teaches us precious little about Fetchit.
This is no bioplay, and Power (Flow, The Seven) certainly isn’t obligated to provide his main characters’ life stories down to the last detail. But most folks already know a few basics about Ali (a fleet-footed Ray Fisher), and there’s plenty more presented in Power’s drama, which is set as the champ preps for his second bout with Sonny Liston. We meet Ali’s wife Sonji (a fierce Nikki M. James, showing much more depth than her Tony-winning turn in The Book of Mormon) and his right-hand man/protector Brother Rashid (John Earl Jelks). When Fetchit tells Ali, ”I am the greatest actor that ever lived!” — smartly echoing Ali’s ”I am the greatest” motto — we don’t have any basis to judge his claim. A couple awkwardly transitioned flashback scenes between the actor and a studio head (Richard Masur) just don’t cut it. Director Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy) has never met a projection he didn’t like, but the massive movie-screen-style backdrop seems like just another missed opportunity.
Credit McAnuff, however, for a high-polished production. Designer Riccardo Hernandez’s whitewashed raised-platform set just needs posts and ropes to seem like a boxing ring. When Freeman and Fisher square off, it’s quite a match. Now all Power’s play needs is that anchor punch. B-
(Tickets: www.ticketcentral.com or 212-279-4200)