Despite a few moments when the florid language of Odets' play comes together well with some strong performances, this revival of Golden Boy* directed by Bartlett Sher does not land its punches. A robust and admirable production of a dated play that just cannot find the spark it needs to be relevant or emotionally gripping today.
Boxing is a visual and dramatic sport that lends itself to change of fortune stories. Budd Schulberg's book The Harder They Fall came out ten years after Golden Boy premiered in 1937 and has always been a favorite of mine (and manages to be a lot less black and white in its thinking--I highly recommend it). It shows the gritty corruption of the entire boxing system. Odets gives us pieces of this but it is not really his focus. He's more interested in this young man chasing his dream, while running from his ghosts. But this noble production fails to find a way to cast off the shackles of Odets' polemical language. It might not be so hard to swallow if the character development was richer. But even that ends up in caricature.
Odets' story is the tale of Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a cockeyed, runt who is teased and taunted and wants nothing more than to show the world he is more than they think he is. And he's angry. His father (Tony Shalhoub), an Italian immigrant, has always encouraged him to be a violinist and he is torn between the beauty and comfort that music gives him and this seething anger that cannot be stamped out which boxing feeds. He gives into the anger and becomes a boxer with his eye on a championship bout. He convinces Tom (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to be his manager and makes eyes at Joe's secretary and mistress, Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski). Lorna's feelings are less clear. She's used as a pawn with Joe but she's tempted by his affections. Joe gets taken under the wing of trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his contract gets bought by gangster Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello).
This is a story of a lot of broken people. And that should appeal to me. There were times I felt for Joe in his struggle. I wished the pivotal moment where he plays the violin was played on stage and not off stage (I don't know if that is a dictate of the author or directorial choice to stage it so the actor doesn't need to be a violin virtuoso). But in a three hour play the delicate moments for Joe and Lorna should have had the room they needed to breathe, but instead more time seems spent on set transitions when location mattered a loss less to me than sentiment here. Those sets (by Michael Yeargan) are gorgeous and the rich, lustrous lighting (by Donald Holder) seems inspired by Edward Hopper. They thought of everything including adding a naked man to the showers in the boxing gym. The period music that plays over the transitions gives a sense of place but none of this enlivens material that is for all intents and purposes a flat, shadow play about, greed, ambition, and hubris.
Strahovski's performance as Lorna made me long for the days of wonderful onscreen
actresses of the 1930's. Even with the sexism of the era, there is
still something about some of those performances that made me think
these were strong and interesting women living in a society where their
role was severely limited (I kept thinking of Jean Arthur who's one of my favorites). I wished Strahovski showed that kind of
strength but instead she played her character as cold for strength and
lukewarm for her weaker moments. Neither of which seemed appropriate
for the scenes and leaving me to wonder what her character's inner
motivations were. I never felt we saw the real character of Lorna and her vulnerability. In
contrast, Seth Numrich is all vulnerability but is covering that with
overcompensating anger and bravado. But far too much of his
character's inner plight is scripted so even if his performance achieves nuance in his battle between softness and toughness the lumbering dialogue of the play lets him down.
I had hoped the actors could find the authenticity to their characters so that even if the dialogue was heavy-footed the performances could rise above it. One of the things I was impressed with with the recent revival of Look Back in Anger was how performers took material that was problematic and used it, but conveyed a lot more than what was written. In the silence, the pauses and how they dealt with the material, you felt a level of commentary, understanding, and perspective. I would have liked to have seen the same thing here.
Instead I had to watch a bunch of actors over-gesticulate their way through caricatures of Italian and Jewish immigrants. Somehow Joe's father comes across as a simpleton when that is far from the case as he has a massive capacity for music, art, philosophy and politics. I struggle with dated works that deal in stereotypes when they are revived because I think the revival has the obligation to deal with that. Recontexualize it or try to move away from stereotypes in the staging and performance if the play has locked you into it. If this production tried to do so, it failed in my estimation.
It's too bad because at the core of Odets plays is an interesting story of a boy whose life has been full of pain and he has two paths before him. One of quiet, artistic ambition and one of raw, violent anger. All the taunts, teasing and slights he has withstood over the years have not been dealt with. His need to show people, on their terms, that he is more than they think he is. He gives into the anger and well, I've seen Star Wars, I know where that gets you. Giving in to the dark side is not the balm he needs. He can fight. He can hit. He can live on anger alone but it is empty. The hole in his heart will not be filled by it. But in three hours somehow that emotional, compelling story is actually rendered as overt symbolic gestures and blunt dialogue about hands.
Golden Boy is worth seeing because it is a rare, professional, big-budget production of a play that you are unlikely to see again. But then again maybe there is a reason it has been kept in mothballs for so long.
*I received a complementary ticket.