Imagine the audacity of "Fetch Clay, Make Man." Piqued by a 1965 photo of boxing champ Cassius Clay and racially toxic black movie star Stepin Fetchit, playwright Will Power dares to recreate this improbable friendship in the context of Clay's historic heavyweight rematch against Sonny Liston in 1965.
That's just for starters. Since Clay was on the brink of becoming Muhammad Ali, Power also gets to explore the complicated broader impact of the Nation of Islam, the murder of Malcolm X, the disgraceful history of black Hollywood in the 1920s and '30s and the masks many people wear to get what they need from life.
And until the play seriously loses its way after intermission, it seems that director Des McAnuff ("Jersey Boys") and a terrific cast are going to push all those slippery strands into a major punch of a drama. Alas, just before the big fight, subtle ideas implode into soapy confrontations, as political history turns simplistic and preposterous distractions dim the spotlight.
Even so, K. Todd Freeman exposes layers of thwarted ambitions as Fetchit, who believed his caricatures of lazy blacks were subversive but became the despised symbol of Uncle Tom. Ray Fisher impressively captures Clay's endearing and unsettling wit and beauty. Even as the play lets them down, John Earl Jelks, as the ascetic Muslim bodyguard, and Nikki M. James, as Clay's wife, put bruised humanity on the ropes of the promising boxing-ring set.
WHAT "Fetch Clay, Make Man"
WHERE New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. Fourth St.
INFO $70; 212-279-4200, nytw.org
BOTTOM LINE Audacious play gets lost in the second half.