NEW YORK - Mike Tyson remembers the Broadway area of his childhood as a hunting ground for his predatory street crimes. But on Thursday, the former champ was playing to New York City royalty, throwing only verbal punches - and punch lines - as he took his one-man show to the legitimate stage.
But, just as it was in Las Vegas, "Undisputed Truth" was a raw, graphic, "Did he just say that?" ride, one that raced the clock to reveal as much of the boxer's storied life as nearly two hours with no intermission would allow. Movie director Spike Lee helped Tyson make the leap to Broadway, honing and shaping the autobiography that debuted at the MGM Grand in April.
Opening night of the two-week, limited engagement in the Longacre Theatre came with a guest list that included Derek Jeter, Donald Trump, Gayle King, C.C. Sabathia, Curtis Granderson, Nia Long, Paul Schneider, Ahmad Rashad, Robert Townsend, Jake LaMotta and Tony Danza.
The elegant theater's chandeliers and balconies were accessorized with banners and hand-lettered signs such as "Crooklyn," apt for the contrast stage between the theater and its main event.
Tyson, wearing a sports jacket with no tie and frequently mopping sweat from his head, was sometimes so soft-spoken as to be nearly inaudible. Early in the show, he seem peeved when a joke about his childhood (" 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,' my ass!") drew a big laugh: "This ain't no stand-up comic (stuff) guys. This is my life, my pain."
But once he got wound up, Tyson would jump around like a kid at Christmas, delivering blistering shots at three longtime foes: Boxer Mitch Green ("a gorilla" whose blood might have contained "West Nile virus"), promoter Don King ("a parasite") and his first wife, actress Robin Givens.
The infamous street fight with Green and the Givens marriage were each afforded about 15 minutes of stage time, more than any talk devoted to Tyson's professional boxing career. The Givens saga brought the night to its shock-value peak, as Tyson vividly tried to explain the difference between the blood from a miscarriage and a menstrual period, when he accused his ex-wife of faking a pregnancy.
"They had me thinking she was miscarryin' and all this tramp needed was a Motrin!" he said.
The evening got off to a far more sedate start. A DJ replaced the gospel band that original producer Adam Steck used to pace the segments in Las Vegas. But the actual show began with Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy," and Tyson sitting on a boxing stool, under a harsh interrogation light, literally in a corner of two wedged vertical panels.
"Welcome to my living room," he said, getting the obligatory joke out of the way early by promising, "You will all leave with two ears."
Lee's touch wasn't usually obvious in a show where the main improvements over Las Vegas were in the pacing and quality of video projections. But there was one point where Tyson recalled his mentor/trainer "Cus" D'Amato asking if he were afraid of white people.
The question - "Are you scared of white people?" - appeared on the rear screen, next to a photo of Mitt Romney. "I know y'all noticed the Spike (stuff) right here," Tyson said with a laugh.
Though Tyson named Lee as one of the many celebrity friends who visited him in prison, Tyson maintained - as he did in the Las Vegas version of the show - that he was sent there unjustly for a rape conviction.
"I thought justice would prevail and the evidence would exonerate me. I did not rape this woman," he said to scattered applause.
But he took care to point out, at both the beginning and end of the show, that he is in a better place now. Depending on the box office for these 12 shows, the stage could turn out to be a better place for him, too.