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NEW YORK – Nothing hammers home the anemia of many new plays being presented on Broadway today quite like the comparison of watching a robust nugget from the national theatrical canon such as Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy. That’s especially true in a production as thoughtfully conceived and vividly inhabited as Bartlett Sher’s riveting 75th anniversary revival for Lincoln Center Theater. Performed on the same stage where it premiered in 1937, this grave assessment of the cost of the American Dream still thrums with a heartfelt humanism both soaring and tragic.
It’s a wonderful stroke of synergistic coincidence that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now running a retrospective of the American artist George Bellows, showcasing the dynamic narratives of his early 20th century paintings of moody New York scenes, in particular of boxers in action. The work of Bellows and other artists of the era has clearly influenced Sher and his regular collaborators, set designer Michael Yeargan and costumer Catherine Zuber. Drenched in the smoky, exquisitely melancholy lighting of Donald Holder, the evocative images onstage of grimy tenement buildings or sweaty gyms frequently appear to have been lifted from a canvas.
Equal inspiration seems to have come from the early noir films and screen melodramas of the late 1930s. Down to its sparing use of underscoring, the production is highly cinematic, often giving the impression of a period movie brought to life. The actors, too, embody precisely the kind of screen archetypes one associates with Odets’ dialogue, which runs the spectrum from hard-bitten cynicism to poetic romanticism. At the same time, the cast creates fully lived-in characterizations. They imbue even the more melodramatic turns with integrity while landing every moment of stirring poignancy.
Sher’s body of work on the New York stage in recent years has been remarkable, from his revelatory reconsideration of South Pacific to his searing take on one of August Wilson’s richest plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, to the piercing emotional intimacy of The Light in the Piazza. The director’s 2006 Broadway revival of Odets’ Awake and Sing! made the yearnings and crumbling hopes of a Depression-era Bronx Jewish family a haunting, stealth-impact experience. His return to that playwright yields comparable rewards.
Tracing the story of Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a gifted violinist who plunges into prizefighting as his ticket out of poverty and anonymity, Golden Boy is one of Odets’ least political plays. It doesn’t have quite the raw, aching heart of Awake and Sing! But as a social drama about the eradication of art, sensitivity and humanity in a mercenary world of grasping materialists, it’s a powerful piece.
The 1939 screen version starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck is not among director Rouben Mamoulian’s best films. But the play’s reputation endures. It premiered in a celebrated Group Theatre production directed by Harold Clurman and was revived on Broadway in 1952 with a cast headed by John Garfield. There was also a 1964 musical adaptation starring Sammy Davis Jr. that updated the action to the early ‘60s and made the central figure a promising black surgeon-turned-pugilist.
While aspects of the three-act drama are inevitably dated, what remains most impactful – and is spectacularly well served in Sher’s production – is the sheer beauty of Odets’ language, with all its jangly musicality, shifting rhythms and flavorful vernacular. That comes from a finely tuned ensemble working in tight harmony.
The evidence of a unit knit together by years of real affections and frictions is particularly strong within Joe’s home, presided over by his widowed father (Tony Shalhoub). An Italian immigrant who drives a horse-drawn produce cart, Mr. Bonaparte is a soulful, cultured man, his contemplative wisdom finding a receptive ear in his philosophizing neighbor, Mr. Carp (Jonathan Hadary). Joe’s older brother Frank (Lucas Caleb Rooney) is a labor union rep often on the road, while his Jewish brother-in-law Siggie (Michael Aronov) is an ebullient lug, bristling to forge his way ahead. Siggie and Joe’s sister Anna (Dagmara Dominczyk) are practically intoxicated with mutual love and desire.
While Mr. Bonaparte states with typical forthrightness that both Siggie and Anna are not the brightest bulbs, he thinks highly of Joe, spending $1200 on a gorgeous violin for his son’s 21st birthday. His father believes that music is the boy’s true path, causing him great sadness when Joe starts pursuing a boxing career.
His cockiness and smarts get Joe a foot in the door with fight manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio). The kid also catches the eye of Tom’s jaded girlfriend Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), a self-described “tramp from Newark” whom the manager plans to wed when he can extricate himself from his sour marriage. An intelligent strategist rather than a slugger, Joe notches a series of wins, coached by nurturing trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein). Unlike Tom, fight promoter Roxy Gottlieb (Ned Eisenberg) and Eddie Fuselli (Anthony Crivello), a gangster who buys a controlling stake in Joe and gets an erotic charge out of that ownership, Tokio actually cares about the rising star’s well-being.
This is juicy stuff, pungently evocative of time and place, and the actors bite into it with rigorous emotional honesty. Numrich is especially impressive. Showing a startling leap in maturity and range from his role in War Horse, he charts Joe’s heartbreaking corruption from restless uncertainty to fierce, consuming drive. Holding back in the ring at first to protect his musician’s hands, he slowly gives in as rage, hunger and resentment spur him on until he is redefined by his arrogance and brutality – literally transformed into a blood-soaked gladiator in the play’s most shattering scene.
Singling out other cast members seems a disservice to the flawless ensemble as a whole. But Mastrogiorgio finds subtle shadings in Tom’s mix of savvy and insecurity; Crivello oozes quiet, elegant menace; the invaluable Burstein makes Tokio an uncommonly tender figure in a harsh milieu; and Strahovski, an Australian actress best known for her television work in NBC’s Chuck and Showtime’s Dexter, makes a striking Broadway debut. Playing a role originated by Frances Farmer, Strahovski looks smashing in Zuber’s sharp ‘30s suits, nailing both the brittle façade and the longing for genuine feeling that grows as Lorna is pulled between Tom and Joe.
Perhaps the most affecting work comes from the heavily accented, almost unrecognizable Shalhoub, who brings gravitas, humor, gentleness and sorrow to Joe’s profoundly decent father. It’s directly through him that we most acutely experience the play’s sense of desolation.
With its cast of 19 and running time of close to three hours, Golden Boy belongs to a breed of American drama rarely seen in major productions in this age of small-company, single-set economy. Sher and his actors allow Odets’ words to breathe and his characters to acquire three-dimensional form. The result is majestic theater.
Venue: Belasco Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 20)
Cast: Michael Aronov, Danny Burstein, Demosthenes Chrysan, Anthony Crivello, Sean Cullen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Ned Eisenberg, Brad Fleischer, Karl Glusman, Jonathan Hadary, Daniel Jenkins, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Dion Mucciacito, Seth Numrich, Vayu O’Donnell, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Tony Shalhoub, Yvonne Strahovski, David Wohl
Director: Bartlett Sher
Playwright: Clifford Odets
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designers: Peter John Still, Marc Salzberg
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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