Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein in a scene
from Lincoln Center Theater’s 75th anniversary production of
(Press credit: Paul Kolnik)
In the 1937 Golden Boy, Clifford Odets, the major American playwright of the Great Depression, wrote the hit that The Group Theatre desperately needed. Ironically, when John Garfield did not get the leading role of Joe Bonaparte, the violin student turned boxer, which he had been told by Odets had been written for him, he defected to Hollywood and some say this caused the demise of the Group.
Not staged often, possibly due to its large cast, Golden Boy has been revived by Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theatre where 75 years ago this Odets’ tragedy had its world premiere. Bartlett Sher, whose productions tend to be variable (the smash hit South Pacific, the quick flop Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) has directed a TKO of a revival, vigorous, muscular and compelling. The cast of 19 plus a top-notch design team has brought the play vividly back to life. The play’s theme of commercial success versus artistic fulfillment is once again relevant today as it was in 1937 while we deal with the financial exigencies of our own Great Recession.
Although the play has been absent from Broadway since 1952 when it was staged by Odets in a revival which finally starred Garfield, it was seen Off Broadway in 1995 in a production by the Blue Light Theatre Company directed by Joanne Woodward with a cast led by James and Greg Naughton, father and son. Its last Broadway outing was the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams hit musical version which starred Sammy Davis, Jr., and which ran from 1964 to 1966. The original Golden Boy had a remarkable cast which included future stars Luther Adler, Roman Bohnen, Morris Carnovsky and his wife Phoebe Brand, Lee J. Cobb, Howard Da Silva, Frances Farmer, Art Smith and Garfield (in the small role of the hero’s brother-in-law), as well as four young actors who became celebrated directors: Michael Gordon, Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis and Martin Ritt.
From the moment that the curtain goes up, Sher’s staging grabs you by the neck and never lets up until the last scene. It is New York City, 1936. Into the small Broadway office of boxing manager Tom Moody comes Joe Bonaparte direct from the gym to tell them him that his boxer scheduled for a bout that night has broken his hand. The unknown Bonaparte offers himself as a replacement. Impressed by the brashness and self-confidence of this 21 year old, Moody takes him on, having nothing to lose. Bonaparte immediately makes headlines and becomes the “Golden Boy,” but everyone wonders why he is always protecting his hands rather than fighting for all he is worth.
Yvonne Strahovski and Danny Mastrogiorgio in a
scene from Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy
(Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)
Bonaparte’s secret is that he has been studying to be a violinist since boyhood and fears that if he damages his hands he will never be able to play the violin again. However, the allure of easy money and the thrill of success is too much for Joe and, against the objections of his Italian immigrant father, he continues his climb to the welterweight championship. Bonaparte’s attraction to Lorna Moon, the married Moody’s girl friend, causes trouble between them as well as small-time gangster Eddie Fuseli’s muscling in on Bonaparte’s contract. However, Joe is living too fast to see the handwriting on the wall.
The language of the play is an unusual combination of the vernacular and the poetic, alternating between earthy and tough and then lyrical and high-flown. In the hands of this cast, it works wonderfully well. The play’s flaws have been debated during the past 75 years, but suffice it to say that in performance it works as a scenario for a compelling evening of theater. Part of the production’s success is the stylized and authentic 1930’s sets by Michael Yeargan which exactly capture the play’s milieu. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes are particularly effective with Lorna’s various matching outfits in bright colors that cry out to notice her. They are complimented by Donald Holder’s subtle lighting changes.
The beauty of Sher’s direction here is that it brings an intimacy to the events that makes you feel like a voyeur. The play packs a powerful wallop until the final scene which is somewhat of a letdown. Howver, this is not due to the writing, but a weak directorial hand which is flaccid where it needs to be as robust as in the rest of the play. Sher has also injected an interesting touch of homoeroticism that was mostly not represented in the 1937 production. In general, the two hours and 50 minutes pass by with the intensity of a vigorous workout.
The impressively large cast of 19 plays the story for all it is worth, although the acting is at times uneven. Seth Numrich, who movingly created the role of the young man in War Horse, beautifully captures Joe’s brashness, insolence and hunger for fame and financial rewards. He also incorporates the chip that Joe wears on his shoulder for past hurts and humiliations into his characterization. We watch him grow and change with money and success. However, he fails to display Joe’s conflicted nature and his growing sense that wealth is not the answer to all of his problems.
Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk and Michael
Aronov in a scene from the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of
(Photo credit: Paul Kolnik)
As Lorna, Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski making her Broadway debut memorably portrays the hard as nails surface that disguises her vulnerability underneath. In this aspect, she resembles 1930’s film actresses who specialized in this type of dame. However, we don’t see enough changes in her Lorna to understand the conflict she undergoes trying to be faithful to two men at the same time. She lacks variety in the course of the play’s three acts. Instead she exhibits a world-weariness in place of growth from one quality to another.
As Joe’s father, Tony Shalhoub, the obsessive compulsive star of the USA Network series, Monk, is the play’s moral center, though he is saddled with a heavy, almost comic Italian accent. Danny Mastrogiorgio does fine work as Tom Moody, the explosive and troubled fight promoter, as does Danny Burstein as Joe’s quiet trainer Tokio who understands him thoroughly. Others who stand out in the large cast are Anthony Crivello as the gangster Eddie Fuseli whose sinister nature is delicately etched and Ned Eisenberg as the expansive fight promoter Roxy Gottlieb. Among Joe’s family members, Michael Aronov as Joe’s brother-in-law is hugely effective as an exasperated cab driver who wants his own taxi.
The 75th Anniversary production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy is not perfect, but it gets enough right to be a TKO. The direction by Bartlett Sher, the large ensemble cast, and the design team all work to make this an unforgettable evening. That the play’s themes are relevant once again is a credit to Odets’ talent. With a revival of Odets’ Hollywood play, The Big Knife, due on Broadway in the spring wit Bobby Cannavale, is it possible that we are having a reevaluation of one of America’s most neglected major playwrights?
Golden Boy (January 20, 2013)
Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com