Mike Tyson doesn't pull any punches in "Undisputed Truth."
The prizefighter may not be the most natural storyteller, and the narrative he spins may meander, but there's no denying that Iron Mike knows how to pique his audience's curiosity for most of the show's almost two hours. Directed by his longtime buddy Spike Lee, this autobiographical tell-all may not be a theatrical knockout, but it's far from a snooze. Written by Tyson's third wife, Kiki, this one-man bout runs through Saturday at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre on the heels of its Broadway debut.
Once heralded as the baddest man on the planet, Tyson, now 46, has always been a larger-than-life figure, from his primal facial tattoo to his swaggering machismo. In the ring, he would bulldoze his opponents. Out of the ring, he threatened to eat their children.
Over the years, he gained notoriety for ferocity and thuggery including biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield's ear and a rape conviction. Many feared him, and some reviled him. But it has always been impossible to ignore him.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this show, which is more of a public confessional than a play, is how affable Tyson is. He's downright avuncular at times, making fun of himself with grace and self-deprecation. He instantly puts the audience at ease when he promises that everyone will go home with two ears.
He's a changed man, Tyson tells us. He no longer does drugs or eats meat, and he seems to have put bloodshed behind him. His wicked sense of humor, which he also displayed in the "Hangover" movies, shines through.
He points out, for instance, that Holyfield has aged better than him, adding that he now looks like Holyfield's fat grandmother. In one scene, he looks at his own mug shot and quips "good picture, bad day."
Of course, as Iron Mike explains, he's been taking it on the chin since he was a child. He grew up in the gutter, as he puts it. His mother drank, he didn't know who his father was and he chalked up 30 arrests by the time he was 10. (He wryly notes that this show played the same block of Broadway where he was once arrested.)
He channeled that rage into one of the greatest boxing careers on record, becoming the youngest heavyweight boxing champion ever.
Tyson has made peace with most of his demons these days but his anger is still visible in the part of the show devoted to ex-wife Robin Givens. Make no mistake, boxer Mitch Green and promoter Don King also take some serious jabs, but Tyson attacks Givens way below the belt. Repeatedly. You can't help feeling sorry for Givens and wary of Tyson's attitude about women, which is surely not what the show intends.
The marriage from hell interlude stretches on too long (although the Brad Pitt bits are juicy), as does his memory of the day Florence Henderson visited him in the big house. There are also too many video montages. Tyson's story would be stronger if the running time were tighter (the show is almost two hours) and the emotional arc clearer.
Certainly he knows how to deliver a punch line, and his facility with profanity is quite impressive. Many of the best moments here come when Tyson remembers his days with mentor Cus D'Amato.
But the script often zigzags from profane to poignant awkwardly. For the record, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly what he's saying, partly because of his poor diction and partly because of his famously squeaky voice. You can't help wondering about what makes him tick. Why does he love pigeons? And how does he explain his history to his children?
The bottom line is "Undisputed Truth" doesn't give us many insights into how Tyson found his redemption. But that hardly matters for fans of the boxer, who hooted and hollered through the piece. For them, he'll always be the champ.
Starring Mike Tyson, directed by Spike Lee
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours (no intermission)
Tickets: $50-$110 (subject to change), 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com