Review: Grippo Stage Company’s Shaw vs. Tunney Tells the Story of a Curious Friendship Based on Love—of Books and Boxing

Fine acting can sometimes save a mediocre script. But pair fine acting with a fascinating story such as the curious friendship between two champions—and you might have theater magic. The script for Shaw vs. Tunney, now on stage in a world premiere by Grippo Stage Company, delivers on all levels with sharp, insightful dialogue and insights into the personalities of the two principals: Legendary Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and champion prizefighter Gene Tunney.

The play, written by Douglas Post, is adapted from the book by Jay Tunney, the boxer’s son, and directed to perfection by Nick Sandys. The story opens in 1928 when Shaw (Richard Henzel) and Tunney (Sam Pearson) first meet in London. Tunney has just retired from boxing after holding the world heavyweight title from 1926 to 1928—and beating Jack Dempsey twice. He and heiress Polly Lauder (Maddie Sachs) have just been married and are spending their honeymoon in Europe. 

Sam Pearson and Maddie Sachs. Photo by Anthony Robert LaPenna.

Tunney, who was known as a strategic or “thinking”  boxer, also, it turns out, is a serious reader and student of literature; he’s eager to talk to Shaw about books and authors. In their first conversation, they argue about Shaw’s 1882 novel, Cashel Byron’s Profession—a story about a boxer. Shaw, who is a student of boxing and a fan of Tunney’s career, has invited Gene and Polly to lunch at his London home, where he lives with his wife Charlotte. 

Tunney is fond of Shaw’s play St. Joan, which prompts an ongoing conversation about religion and faith between Tunney, a devout Irish Catholic, and Shaw, a noted atheist. 

Gene and Polly are settling in for a long stay on the Adriatic island of Brioni—before they return to the US –and invite the Shaws to visit them there. 

Polly serves as narrator throughout the play, filling us in on what happens between scenes. Thus she advises us that we’re now on Brioni and the Shaws are arriving. It’s a year later. 

Tunney longs for advice from Shaw on how to discover what it is he should do with the rest of his life. He sees himself in retirement as a man of letters. What books should he read? What authors should he focus on? He’s reading the classics (Homer’s The Aeneid and Shakespeare) and In fact, he once guest-lectured on Shakespeare at Yale University, while training to defend his title against Dempsey. His library is growing, as Polly observes.

Much of the second half of the play concerns their discussions on these subjects and many others. Shaw, always a boxing fan, challenges Tunney to a match at one point, although faux punches are thrown throughout the play. Shaw is 72 as the play begins and proves a frisky competitor to 31-year-old Tunney.

Henzel and Pearson in a 1948 scene. Photo by Anthony Robert LaPenna.

Director Sandys gets to use his fight director chops with his actors and the boxing scenes look authentic. Henzel is the outstanding performer in this three-hander, although Pearson and Sachs are excellent too and very believable as loving newlyweds. In the final scene, set in 1948, two years before his death, Shaw is 20 years older. Henzel ages smoothly, physically and vocally. It’s a subtle but beautifully realized performance.

The set design by Abbie Reed follows Post’s scripted instructions successfully. The open stage is surrounded by a light-colored painted scrim (the scenic painter is Alexa Wiljanen). Wooden benches form a semi-circle with movable pieces and storage for props and costume pieces. As in many contemporary plays, the actors are on stage throughout the play, moving back to sit on a bench when they are not in a scene.

Lighting design is handled subtly by Diane Fairchild with sound design and music composition by Christopher Kriz. Costumes are by Rachel Lambert. Wendye Clarendon is stage manager.

The play is adapted from the 2010 book, The Prizefighter and the Playwright: Gene Tunney and Bernard Shaw, by Jay Tunney, the boxer’s son. The book followed a 2000 BBC worldwide radio program describing the friendship.

Charlotte, Shaw’s wife, is mentioned frequently in the play but never appears. The story of the relationship and the marriage of GBS and Charlotte Payne-Townshend is intriguing and unconventional. She was a fierce feminist, socialist, and anarchist, who campaigned for Irish independence. Charlotte and GBS (he hated the name George and preferred Bernard) were past 40 when they married and had no children. 

Shaw vs. Tunney by Grippo Stage Company continues through July 8 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $38-$42 for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is two hours including one intermission.

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.