Language packs punch in witty 'Gloves Off!'

WELLFLEET Kevin Rice's new play is a knockout. Set in a fight ring, it's a battle of words between two literary giants.

"Gloves Off! Nabokov vs. Wilson," at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater's Harbor Stage, is a clever, witty and entertaining one-act play, based on the feud between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Wilson's "scathing attack" (as Rice terms it) of Nabokov's Russian-to-English translation of Alexander Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." In 1965, Wilson, born in New Jersey, had the chutzpah to be critical of Nabokov's knowledge of his native language.

Good friends and admirers of each other's work, the break actually began 10 years earlier when Wilson disparaged Nabokov's most famous novel, "Lolita." After the 1965 incident, their war of words continued for several years.

Rice, who also directed the play, amusingly puts the two combatants in a fight ring to duke it out, although Wilson throws but one punch.

The play is set in Wellfleet, where Wilson spent many years. The contenders for the world's literary heavyweight championship are announced in fight terms as "weighing in." For Nabokov, it amounts to "19 novels, 111 short stories, five plays, nine volumes of poetry, innumerable translations ..." Wilson is "weighing in at 19 books of literary criticism, three novels, eight plays, 668 articles ..."

Nabokov, mischievously played by Nathaniel Hall Taylor, steps into the ring wearing blue trunks and red boxing gloves and fiercely jabbing. Taylor is a colorful young actor with flashing eyes and an impish grin.

Meandering into the ring writing in a notebook, the pompous, erudite Wilson, in a beige double-breasted suit and bow tie, is played in beautiful deadpan by Ted Vitale, who seems to have captured his character's demeanor perfectly.

Rice is a very funny Howard Cosell he even sounds like him describing the action, along with Don Meredith (vibrantly played by Garry Mitchell), who is reminded by the cigar-chomping Cosell that "Monday Night Football" is still five years in the future.

As the fight begins, Cosell announces that the judges John Updike, J.D. Salinger and Truman Capote are stuck in traffic at the bridge, so the audience gets to vote.

And then the fight begins. Nabokov is bouncing and jabbing the air, while Wilson remains unflappable, demanding to read the contract, which he announces "fully substantiates my belief that the English language is dying out."

But not in this play. Rice pulls together this boxing image and all its associations, adds dozens of literary references and comes up with a fast-moving play with smart, sparkling dialogue. It certainly helps to have some knowledge of the background of these literary figures. But if you have even a smattering of information (as little as what I've supplied), it is likely you will be laughing and thoroughly entertained as the two contenders match wits and Rice's merry style keeps the activity bouncing off the ropes.

At one point, with his only punch, Wilson knocks Nabokov out, then organizes a Zuni chant to revive him. But Nabokov comes to life only when he hears Wilson speaking Russian. Nabokov says while he was down and out he thought he was in heaven, until he heard Wilson's Russian. I realized, he says, "that I was sentenced to be the sole audience for your verbal miscarriages of my native tongue. I understood then that it was hell ... and, while able, I beat a hasty retreat."

Toward the end of the play there's this little interlude where the actors take up a scene in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," and it all turns delightfully wild.

The cast is in great shape for the ring. Very funny are Bruce Bierhans and Bob Costa as the cantankerous trainers. Ed Etsten is droll as the confused referee. Emily Murray is Doll, a sassy figure who comes out to announce the rounds and gets lots of eye-popping attention from Nabokov. And David Fraioli is the tuxedo-clad announcer.

Rice's words are as sharp as a sudden jab. His direction is as swift and sure as a champion boxer's.

"Gloves Off!" has great potential; it certainly deserves a larger audience than Wilson's hometown.

* * *

After intermission, stay and be entertained by David Wright, who makes mellow music on a keyboard and sings in a resonant voice from a repertoire that includes songs by Smokey Robinson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Duke Ellington. Music as diverse as "Some Enchanted Evening," "Darn that Dream," "Secret Love" and "Look for a Silver Lining" will send you sweetly out into the Wellfleet summer night, one that Wilson probably enjoyed many times.

On Stage

What: "Gloves Off! Nabokov vs. Wilson"

  • Written and directed by: Kevin Rice
  • Produced by: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
  • When: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday
  • Where: Harbor Stage, 1 Kendrick Ave., Wellfleet
  • Tickets: $23
  • Reservations: 508-349-9428 or


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