Khris Davis A Knock-Out In 'The Royale'

Sometimes the most powerful fights are the ones we have in our own minds — a fact vividly depicted on stage in “The Royale,” a riveting play by Marco Ramirez (“Daredevil,” “Orange is the New Black”), getting a hell of a workout Off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The main character of this fast and furious work is based loosely on the life of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion (and also the protagonist of Howard Sackler’s sprawling 1968 play “The Great White Hope”). But this is a spare and intimate story of internal struggles, propelled by the dynamic, imaginative direction of Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) and performed by a terrific quintet of actors, led by a charismatic Khris Davis as the great black hope.

The opening scene signals the taut, tense story ahead. Within Nick Vaughan’s wooden environmental set centering on a boxing ring — and given dramatic punch by Austin R. Smith’s lighting — two boxers duel. One is Jay (Davis), a prodigious fighter who toys with his opponents with verbal head games, supreme confidence and crushing right hooks. The other is Fish (McKinley Belcher III, very good), a solid contender who’s undone by the skills and strategies of his dazzling opponent.

This first fight is theatrically staged without a blow landing on anyone’s body, but instead presented with startling percussive claps and stomps that are just as devastating as a punch to the gut. It’s clear that it’s what’s going on inside the opponents’ psyches that is as compelling and revealing as their skills in boxing.