I wish Golden Boy caught fire. I wish I could say that Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Clifford Odets’s 1937 play was igniting a nightly blaze at the Belasco Theatre, where it premiered 75 years ago. Bartlett Sher’s new production generates a fair amount of heat, and generates it through the best artistic means, but it never catches and burns. And if any play demands fire, Golden Boy does.
A mid-career work whose flaws are well-known, Golden Boy shows Odets, like his hero, torn between artistic principle and commercial success. In the play’s slightly dubious metaphor, this compels Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a musically gifted Brooklyn kid with a poverty-embedded chip on his shoulder, to choose between being a violin prodigy and a welterweight boxing champ. He opts for the latter, dismaying his music-loving father (Tony Shalhoub), because of its flashy material rewards, but also—in a homoerotic undercurrent that Sher’s production stresses—to avoid the “outsider” (i.e., “queer”) stigma classical music brings.
We never learn what sort of violin-playing career Joe might have had. Like his hero, Odets jumps to snap decisions. Taken at its proper tempo, less stately than Sher’s, the action moves with almost manic quickness. What gives the script distinction is Odets’s gaudy language, a raffish mix of street-speak and high-flown ornateness. Some of Sher’s large cast catch its exact tone, notably Shalhoub, Danny Burstein as Joe’s trainer, Anthony Crivello as the gangster who buys “a piece” of Joe’s contract, and Ned Eisenberg as a wiseass fight promoter.
Others work the Odetsian vein accurately but monotonously, while still others, unhappily including Yvonne Strahovski as Joe’s ill-fated love object, Lorna Moon, seem locked in a director-inspired self-consciousness, rendering every line with invisible quotes around it, “playing Odets” the way actors who lack a Shakespearean sensibility “play Shakespeare.”
Odets, of course, expected, and apparently got in 1937, both more fierceness and better-grounded, more strongly varied detail from his cast (four members of which, interestingly, later became notable directors: Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, Michael Gordon, and Martin Ritt). He wins the evening anyway, on points, as it were, because the language flares up even when treated piously, and because his melodramatic urgency keeps pushing the story onward, despite the squarish staging. Numrich, investing Joe with a bumptious, eager-eyed energy, scores unevenly but hits many moments to perfection; his punch-drunk reeling at the climax gives a taste of the vertiginous effect Golden Boy‘s first audiences must have felt.