Cassius Clay had recently converted to Islam, re-emerged as Muhammad Ali and was preparing for his 1965 heavyweight title rematch with Sonny Liston when he introduced the press to his “secret strategist,” movie star Lincoln Perry.
The unlikely friendship that Ali forged with the black actor whose screen name was Stepin Fetchit -- “the laziest man in the world” -- raised many an eyebrow. Just as it does in the engaging “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Ali had an agenda, according to Will Power’s play, staged with great finesse by Des McAnuff and spiffily designed by Riccardo Hernandez.
Nervous about the rematch with a better-prepared Liston and the controversy surrounding his conversion, the Champ wanted Perry to tell him any secrets he might have gleaned from his earlier friendship with another boxing legend, Jack Johnson.
The key strength of the play lies in Perry’s willingness to push back in the face of his host’s oddly seductive narcissism. Stepin Fetchit gives no quarter.
Their relationship, which McAnuff winds-up carefully like a dramatic mainspring, reveals two icons fluent in the dangerous dance their private selves do with their public images.
“I snuck in the back door so you could walk in the front,” Perry tells Ali.
Public and private events -- the assassination of Malcolm X, Ali’s faltering marriage -- swirl around the central story, which build with steady but jagged momentum to the big fight.
K. Todd Freeman’s slouchy body language and piercing eyes as Perry provide a great foil to Ray Fisher’s bobbing, imposing Ali. Nikki M James makes a meal of wife Sonji, a woman who declines to be embarrassed about her past and already bristles at the sanctimony surrounding her.
The climax of “Fetch Clay, Make Man” is history, but the tale within is completely absorbing.
A rather tender romance lies at the center of “The Old Friends,” a drama by the late Horton Foote having its world premiere in a dazzling production at the Signature Theatre.
Foote surrounds the love story of the recently widowed Sybil Borden (Hallie Foote, whose wellspring eyes convey Russian novels) and Howard Ratliff (the fine Cotter Smith), with plenty of family melodrama.
Howard manages the vast properties of his sister-in-law, the voracious sodden dowager Gertrude Ratliff (Betty Buckley, in the finest dramatic performance of her career).
She’s a sharp contrast to Lois Smith’s Mamie Borden, Sybil’s lonely mother-in-law and the object of scorn by daughter Julia (Veanne Cox, a tower of middle-aged delusion) and her slobbering husband (the St. Bernardish Adam LeFevre).
Michael Wilson, who has proven to be the director Foote spent his life searching for, allows all these characters to breathe even as their unsavory rivalries and sad stories threaten to overwhelm the central story.
All to masterful effect: Foote was an American Chekhov who savored character over plot (there are echoes here of “Uncle Vanya”). We leave the theater in the knowledge that Howard and Sybil have finally found a safe harbor to nurse their awful psychic wounds.
Through Oct. 6 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: *****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.