Somewhere, a barely 21-year-old boy-man from a poor-but-striving urban immigrant family plays classical violin so well he won a scholarship to a conservatory when he was barely out of knee pants -- and, when bow isn’t under his chin, he manages to find time dodge sidewinders there at a local gym where has somehow found enough time to develop the talent potentially to rise to a potential world champ.
If you find this guy, let me know, because the only place where I’ve ever spotted him is in the minds of playwrights and screenwriters who wanted to sock an audience with the "real life" dilemma between struggling in the arts or going for the easy win in the ring. When Odetts wrote, "Golden Boy," he was swimming against a tide of decades of well-wrought parlor dramas and historical panoramas that depicted landed aristocrats and regal queens. A few playwrights, like Elmer Rice, were using the jargon and the toughs of New York’s streets to create slice-of-life dramas, most playwrights of the 1930s stuck with the high-brow seeming pageants in which posh-sounding actors with last names like Barrymore and Lunt could declaim on the woes of the wealthy, the aristocratic and the pampered learned class. Even Eugene O’Neill, after some early grasps of the burgeoning "new theater," reverted to having his drug addicts, lushes, life failures and ne’er do wells express the hope and (more usually) despair of their lives in flowery rhetoric incongruous with the characters’ background and learning.
So when Clifford Odetts, a politically committed writer who saw the working classes as the true embodiments of true emotions, wrote a three-act tragedy played out in seedy offices, crowded tenement apartments and brutal boxing rings, it had the ring not only of truth, but of truths welling up from the overcrowded tenements, seedy hotels and dust-caked offices of the urban under class.
The central conceit that Joe Bonaparte (Odets obviously liked to play around with the theater shibboleth that "the nomen is the omen" -- a character’s name holds the key to his fate) stumbles into the world of pro boxing after he offers to substitute for guy whose hand he just broke at the gym already gives a pretty good indication that a lot of the drama here is borrowed from Hollywood -- specifically from Warner Bros., in this case "42nd Street."
Maybe you don’t actually hear his manager (played with verve but an undisciplined accent by Danny Mastrogiorgio)) say, "You’re may be going into that ring just another fighter, but you’ve got to walk out of there a champ." But we know from the moment that Bonaporte (played by Seth Numrich) comes buzzing in into the office, like L’il Abner’s Evil Eye Fleagle, he’s all nerves, cocky self-confidence and plenty of what they used to call moxie.
Numrich does great -- amazingly well -- in his boxing scenes. But even so, he was a lot more believable with bow under his chin than an opponent’s right hook. When he plaintively asks "What about girls" when he’d told he’s going into serious training, the line is delivered as a throwaway, although this must be as close to a life-and-death an issue a young, good-looking, athletic 21-year-old has ever faced.
As his girlfriend, the well-worn Lorna, Yvonne Strahovski initially comes across as an incarnation of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. But although she may seem (as with too many of the many, many cast members) to have studied at the "Laverne & Shirley" School for Accents, she becomes more believable in the later acts, when she’s forced to develop a moral compass more nuanced than the self-dismissive "I’m just a tramp from Newark." (I’ve never seen the film version -- done by Warner Bros., of course. But I’ll just bet that when Barbara Stanwyck says it, you believe it.)
For theater aficionados, this full-on, lushly mounted revival of Golden Boy will be a great chance to encounter one of the legends of 1930s Broadway in the flesh. I admit that I kept hearing echoes of all of those melodramas Warner Bros. was churning out by bushelful -- including a direct rip-off of "Golden Boy," where a medical student turns to prize fighting so his kid brother can become a classical pianist ("City for Conquest").
Seeing the play today also reveals some of the structural problems that threaten the plot, already burdened by layers of allegory. To take just one example: Joe never reveals to his trainer or manager why he keeps protecting his hands. That’s left to his Italian-immigrant father. But even though Joe doesn’t know his secret’s out, in the very next scene, he goes into flights of poetry about the difference between making music and braking jaws to Lorna.
If there are problems with bringing an old warhorse like this to the stage, there are also delights. A first-rate production certainly helps, and, to its credit, Lincoln Center Theater pulled out the stops here. Broadway veteran director Bartlett Sher has been working with some of the theater’s most cherished works, from "South Pacific" to Rossini’s opera "The Barber of Seville"; from a way-too-busy musical adaptation of an Almodovar film to Shakespeare’s nuanced romance "Cymbaline."
Although Sher obviously likes to "stretch," it’s no surprise that Sher had hoped his next project would have been a long-delayed revival of "Funny Girl": Fanny Brice’s rise out of the Lower East Side and into the arms of a fancy mobster is almost "Golden Boy" with a gender change and musical score. ("Golden Boy" itself received the Broadway musical treatment by Charles Strouse (now basking in the revival of his "Annie"). In this iteration, race becomes the leitmotif.
If much of "Golden Boy" today comes across as contrived or a near-parody of the "dese and dose" tough-guy rat-a-tat-a-tat dialogue we associate with those 1930s cinematic New Yorkers like the Dead End Kids, it also provides enough honest throat gulpers to justify once more treading the Belasco’s boards, where, in a nice symmetry, the play originally opened.
The enormous cast helps, especially studded with Broadway greats like Danny Burstein (as Joe’s trainer), Jonathan Hadary (as the world-weary philosophy-spouting candy storeowner who keeps Joe’s dad company and co-starred in the very first Broadway play about AIDS, "As Is") and Ned Eisenberg as a too-fast smart-talking wheeler-dealer. It’s a joy to see so many really great American stage actors inhabit their roles like their well-worn two-piece suits, brim-down fedoras, and cigarettes (although I was expecting the stage to be covered with a thick haze of smoke, considering how pervasive the habit was back then).
It’s interesting that Odetts himself went into a decline not long after his initial successes. But the truth is that up-and-coming playwrights like Arthur Miller and William Inge were creating blue-collar characters who managed to combine the playwright’s ideals with real-life situations, while Tennessee Williams was taking the poetry of his characters and making it seem equally real.
But if there’s any question that Odetts was a visionary as well as a genius at dialogue, look only to the screenplay for "Sweet Smell of Success." By the late ’50s, Odetts had come to realize that in America (and especially in Manhattan), Marxist class paradigms shriveled in importance when faced with the real "capital," fame.
If you want to see a play that moves along with the trajectory of Greek tragedy; if you want to re-experience the thrill of ’30s audiences experiencing real people instead of Queen Elizabeth or Joan of Arc; and, above all, if you yearn for the days when Broadway routinely presented big plays with big ideas and big casts that made American theater the gold standard for popular entertainment; then by all means, rush to the Belasco Theater.
Just don’t be surprised if you have a vague feeling of deja vu. That’s the price of success when a playwright does something different -- and then everyone else follows.
"Golden Boy" is playing at the Belasco Theater on Broadway -- actually just east of the Great Way, at 111 W. 44th St. The show is running through Jan. 20 only. For tickets, go to 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.