To call the Yale Repertory Theatre’s presentation of “Fighting Words” “theater in the round” wouldn’t be nearly as accurate as “theater in the ring” or “theater, round-by-round.” Surrounded on all sides by the audience and deteriorating gray ropes, the square acting space serves as a cold, stinking gym, a tiny backyard and an aging kitchen — each a sparring ground in its own right, it turns out — in the mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, in 1980. In this colorful but flawed drama based on the real career of Welsh boxer Johnny Owen, time is measured not by the clock but by rounds of wit and the uncovering of secrets.

The only physical punches in director Liz Diamond’s show are thrown at shadows and imaginary contenders, but there are plenty of punching bags, including the one with a duct-taped seam hanging in the corner, and more elusive targets like the past and the characters’ aspirations. The real blows are delivered verbally by three women — Peg (Emma Bowers), Nia (Meg Brogan DRA ’98), and Mrs. Davies (Jayne Houdyshell) — who relentlessly dissect each others’ lives to determine who had the most intimate relationship with their hometown hero Owen, who’s about to step onto the world stage at the bantamweight championship against Mexican Lupe Pintor in Los Angeles. Though Johnny — 5 feet 8 inches and all ears — never appears on our stage, we do see his big fight reenacted toward the end of the play in a mesmerizing and poignant monologue by Peg, a young aspiring boxer who flew to L.A. to witness the “Merthyr Matchstick” box the fight of his life. By the play’s conclusion, however, we realize the greatest fights are figuring out when to quit and recognizing when winning is really losing.

Written by Sunil Thomas Kuruvilla DRA ’99 while he was at Yale, “Fighting Words” deals with some gloomy subjects: lost love, aging and the subservience of women in Welsh society. Yet there’s plenty of humor in the women’s hostile wit and their frisky spirits. In Mrs. Davies’ kitchen, as the women bake a cake and prepare to watch the fight on TV, they crawl out of their life-hardened shells to dance and jest, fight and laugh through their own frailties, fears and passions. Kuruvilla’s keen ear for surprising dialogue yields inventive characterizations and delivers entertainment amid seemingly unalterable sadness.

“Sometimes,” Mrs. Davies comments, “you have to act happy before you really are.”

“Fighting Words” survives leaping from insight to insight, moment to moment. Some, thankfully, are whimsical; others others are tragic. But this comes at the expense of the show’s overall continuity. As was Kuruvilla’s “Rice Boy” (performed at the Yale Rep in 2000), this script is more a scene and character study than a truly compelling story. Still, “Fighting Words” is far more accessible than his previous production; and in the hands of three extremely competent actresses, Kuruvilla’s voices and images and unexpected metaphors are transporting and, for the most part, consuming.

At first the characters are distant and enigmatic, perhaps because the opening scene is stolen from the last third of the show (it’s replayed later, in its appropriate chronology). But the characters’ and the actresses’ youthful sense of play is infectious despite the show’s fragmented structure. Brogan and Bowers are irresistible as they joust verbally in mock-interviews conducted by Nia as she prepares for an audition for the BBC. Houdyshell, as the older, plump and fashioned-troubled Mrs. Davies, is sweetly childlike as she describes her favorite skimpy bathing suit or when she tries to teach Nia, a conservative straight-edge, how to box. More endearing is the moment when Peg and Mrs. Davies cry for superstition’s sake in the cake batter, holding sliced onions to their eyes to bring the tears.

But the tears might as well be real, since, as Mrs. Davies suggests, the three are really only feigning happiness in these moments. The laughter subsides when the real boxing begins and the women rip and tear for each other’s personal secrets about Johnny Owen.

Then the play ends as mysteriously as it began, in a detached and unnecessary flash-forward to show that, though the details may have changed, life is fundamentally the same at it’s always been.

The trouble is, with our sympathies so invested in these extraordinary women — these funny, strong, fragile, loving, scared, skeptical women — it’s hard to care as much about the thin, formal plot, or about Johnny himself. So when Johnny’s life and career steal too much of the dialogue, especially toward the end, it’s hard not to feel cheated, since the real action was never in the ring.