Golden Boy Review: Clifford Odets’ Broadway Boxing Drama Dated, Wonderful

Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein in Lincoln Center Theater production of "Golden Boy"
Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein in Lincoln Center Theater production of “Golden Boy”

There are several great pleasures in “Golden Boy,” the play by Clifford Odets about gifted Italian-American violinist Joe Bonaparte who gives up his art for the life and quick fortune of a boxer, which has returned to the Belasco Theater 75 years after it debuted there.

*Some of the playwright’s dialogue brings us back to the heyday of snappy repartee, but each rich, slangy line contains what Odets devotee Arthur Miller called “word-joy,”  demonstrating why Miller considered Odets “the only poet….not only in social protest theater but in all of New York theater.”

*Director Bartlett Sher’s staging, which takes some time to get used to, becomes riveting in its details, and powerful in its impact.

*There are some stand-out performances – Tony Shalhoub as Joe’s music-loving father, Danny Burstein as his trainer, Yvonne Strahovski as the self-declared “tramp from Newark” for whom he falls, and, in a small but delightful role, Jonathan Hadary as the intellectual Jewish neighbor, Mr. Carp. But nearly every actor in this huge cast of 19, including Seth Numrich as Joe, has at least one moment to savor.

*Catherine Zuber’s costumes are sharp, spot-on, and cleverly add to the meaning of the story.

For all the glories of the Lincoln Center production, there is no disguising that “Golden Boy” is also an old-fashioned melodrama that does not transcend its era the way other works written in (if not necessarily about) the 1930’s have done: Our Town, Porgy and Bess, Grapes of Wrath, Life With Father, Of Mice and Men.

Even if you have never seen the 1939 movie of “Golden Boy” that made William Holden a star, or never heard of the 1964 musical version starring Sammy Davis Jr., you can more or less guess how the play ends from the start.

Odets wrote “Golden Boy,” unlike his earlier work, expressly to be a commercial hit, which it was. It is also a stand-in for his own career, begun with such political calls to action as “Waiting for Lefty” and “Awake and Sing” but then swerving to answer the siren call of Hollywood. His “Golden Boy” might have seemed more directly relevant today had he written more specifically about his own compromises, rather than relocating the art vs. commerce conflict to violin-playing vs. boxing, which, however realistic in the 1930’s, is unlikely to the point of absurdity in 2012.

This is not to condemn “Golden Boy,” but to provide the key for appreciating it.   It is a work of anthropology, a spoken-word opera,  a vehicle to another era.

For a play whose plot is as obvious as this one, the Lincoln Center production has wonderful moments of subtlety, feeling and allusion.

Danny Burstein, a trainer with much wisdom and compassion, watches as his boxer breaks down crying,  and then slowly, tentatively, gives him a pat on the head, as if soothing a horse.  Tony Shalhoub offers his son a gift of a violin that he has spent years of his wages to buy for him. The son, already committed to the life of a boxer, nevertheless takes it in his hand with near-reverence – and magically Shalhoub produces the violin bow, and then puts the violin pad on Joe’s shoulder, silently encouraging his son to play…a funny, touching moment.

It’s not just the acting.  Michael Yeargan’s set focuses our attention on the backdrop of a tenement building, which looms over the actors performing in an island in the middle of the stage — as if to say that they can never escape their poverty.

Donald Holder’s dramatic lighting trains dramatic spotlights on the actors and keeps everything else in the dark – apparently looking to recreate the chiaroscuro of the Ashcan School (no coincidence that George Bellows’ painting of a boxer is use as the show’s poster and Playbill cover)

It’s been a long time since anybody thought of Clifford Odets the way Arthur Miller did in his youth: “An Odets play was awaited like news hot off the press, as though through him we would know what to think of ourselves and our prospects.” If “Golden Boy” no longer helps us to know about ourselves, the Lincoln Center Theater production at the Belasco helps us to know about Clifford Odets – and that, it turns out, is a good thing.

Golden Boy

Belasco Theater (111 West 44th Street)

By Clifford Odets

Directed by Bartlett Sher; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg; fight direction by B. H. Barry;

Cast: Michael Aronov (Siggie), Danny Burstein (Tokio), Demosthenes Chrysan (Lewis), Anthony Crivello (Eddie Fuseli), Sean Cullen (Drake), Dagmara Dominczyk (Anna), Ned Eisenberg (Roxy Gottlieb), Brad Fleischer (Pepper White), Karl Glusman (Call Boy), Jonathan Hadary (Mr. Carp), Daniel Jenkins (Barker), Danny Mastrogiorgio (Tom Moody), Dion Mucciacito (Sam), Seth Numrich (Joe Bonaparte), Vayu O’Donnell (Driscoll), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Frank Bonaparte), Tony Shalhoub (Mr. Bonaparte), Yvonne Strahovski (Lorna Moon) and David Wohl (Mickey).

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including two ten-minute intermissions.

Golden Boy is scheduled to run through January 20. It seems likely to be extended.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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