Clifford Odets wrote GOLDEN BOY to be a hit for him and for the financially troubled Group Theatre that nurtured him. PARADISE LOST had not been the hit that WAITING FOR LEFTY and AWAKE AND SING were (all three were on Broadway in 1935). In the intervening year, Odets had had his first taste of Hollywood. GOLDEN BOY shows the influence of the movies -- it is more episodic than his earlier work. We're not tied to one domestic setting and instead of long acts, Odets is writing in scenes. While home and family is still the ideal, the play moves from offices to gyms to arena dressing rooms to a New York park. This is a play that could easily be turned into a movie and was, successfully, a few years later.
There had been stories of the rise and fall of boxers before GOLDEN BOY, but none with the poetry that Odets brings to the narrative of "the cockeyed wonder" Joe Bonaparte. Though he comes from a loving home, Joe has a chip on his shoulder. Like many of Odets's young men, he is angry because he knows he is missing something, but can't articulate what it is. Though he has been a violin prodigy and loves making music, he turns to boxing to release his anger and because he thinks success will fill the hunger that leads to anger and frustration. OK, we've been there before and been there many times since in the movies (think BODY AND SOUL with John Garfield, the first Joe Bonaparte), but no one gives this story the language that Odets provides. Here is a textbook example of poetic realism at its best. The scenes in Joe's home, presided over by a loving, baffled patriarch (the wonderful Tony Shaloub) are infamiliar Odets territory. The first home scene is comic, but also filled with the dream of success as Joe's brother-in-law Figgie desperately wants to own his own cab. Siggy and Joe's sister Anna have a turbulent, loving relationship. The language of the first domestic scene is mundane, comic lively. Has anybody ever written the banter of urban, first and second generation Americans better than Odets? The counter to the home life Joe rejects, as he rejects the expensive violin his father has bought him, is the office of fight promoter Tom Mooney. The world of boxing is one of violent conflict and of the buying and selling of young men on the make. The best of this world is the devoted trainer Tokio; the worst is gangster Eddie Fuseli who expresses his love for Joe the only way he can -- by smothering him in things. Fuseli is one of the rare three-dimensional gay characters in pre-Stonewall American drama. Since his love is forbidden, he turns to violence and to possession of men who can't love him back. There's also the love triangle of Tom Mooney, his young mistress Lorna and Joe. Lorna is young, vulnerable, guilty about the life she is leading, but able to project an aura of toughness.
Boxing for Odets is an image of capitalism gone awry. Joe's great success comes after he kills a man in the ring. Ultimately he is killed in the symbol of his success -- his expensive car.
GOLDEN BOY is still a good story, but it's the language that makes this play great. 'The actors director Bartlett Sher has cast relish the words. Almost everyone is totally convincing in his/her role. I have reservations about Anthony Crivello's overly sinister presentation of Eddie Fuseli. His characterization seems more external, more melodramatic than those of his castmates. Otherwise, from top to bottom, this is a fine company of actors. Seth Numrick has the right combination of swagger and vulnerability for Joe. Yvonne Strahovski captures Lorna Moon's conflicting moods.Danny Burstein give another fine performance as the insightful trainer, Tokio. Above all, Tony Shaloub makes Joe's father more of a focal character than I thought he could be. He becomes the moral center of the play.
There are a lot of scene changes in GOLDEN BOY and Sher has used a series of wagons to roll scenery on and off. This was a preview and I imagine those scene changes will speed up a bit before opening night. Within the scenes, the pacing seemed just right. A play this good doesn't need all this scenery (Michael Yeargan is the designer) this production gives us, but this is Broadway.
The production clocks in at just under three hours (with two intermissions) but the audience seemed totally riveted.
I am grateful that a classic by one of America's greatest playwrights has gotten such a good revival on its 75th birthday in the very theatre in which it opened in 1937. And we have Odets THE BIG KNIFE to look forward to this coming spring.
GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher. Belasco Theatre. November 21. 2012,