The opportunity to see a full-scale production of an Odets play should be motivation enough for any theater aficionado; like the chance at a title match, it doesn't come along very often. It's not a knock-out, but Golden Boy lands some mean punches, winning by decision.
While notably winded and running out of room at the end of the third round, this production has some very powerful scenes, capturing a moment in American history when plays had large casts and socialism was popular enough in corners of the U.S. to make moneyed men truly uncomfortable. (Note: If you label President Obama as a Socialist, please read more on the subject.) Taking on the imperial juggernaut of capitalism in a boxing ring that works as a metaphor, it is the story of a battle for the soul of a country being fought over the future of one young man's life.
There are some stark divisions in the quality of performances in this production, leaving the lingering hint of some uneven directing to waft through the work. In the ring of redemption, Danny Burstein [above, right] stands strong with Danny Mastrogiorgio, Yvonne Strahovski, and Seth Numrich [above, center]. Playing the sleeper role of Tokio, Burstein comes on quiet, but establishes a soothing core of comfort and warmth from his first entrance, steadily building to a incendiary scene he shares with Seth Numrich's Joe Bonaparte that makes one wish this was a play with a smaller cast, allowing for more time to watch the interaction between these two characters. Burstein lovingly supports Numrich's seething, semi-suicidal rage as it builds to an intensity that renders any other flaws in the production or play momentarily insignificant. It is a thing of beauty and not to be missed. Danny Mastrogiorgio and Yvonne Strahovski support this white-hot flame with a sad backdrop of pragmatism and necessity. The way Mastrogiorgio shamelessly vies for survival possesses the tragic beauty of inevitable and exhausted resignation, as does Strahovski's, the sweet decay of a wilting flower that secretly yearns to bloom just one more time. One can only imagine Odets would have beamed to see his characters treated with such love, respect, and dignity.
On the flip side of that filthy capitalist coin are some smudges that do not complement the piece's antiquity. Tony Shalhoub [above, left], known to most of us as TV's Monk, is in over his head on this stage where the truly great and not-so-great have been left to mingle, joining with Anthony Crivello's Fuseli to create some gross Italian caricatures that provide Nintendo's Mario Brothers some dimension by comparison. Whatsa the matta' is director Bartlett Sher let this happen, but the end result is a souring of something that should have been bittersweet.
Sher seems to have been overwhelmed by the size of this cast; he allows himself to get carried away by decorating the stage with active extras who, while adding a welcome accent of realism, are featured so prominently as to be distracting. Nuanced lighting might have solved this problem and allowed the masses their place in the background action, but it avails not in this production. Ultimately, these glaring flaws hurt the continuity deeply, denying it the title of champion that it comes so close to attaining.
Clifford Odets holds an interesting position in the canon of American playwrights. He was one of the most celebrated playwrights of his time, and while he could and possibly should have attained the same lasting status as widely recognized writers like Williams and O'Neill, there is little arguing that his work has been relegated to the considerations of scholars and theater buffs. This production encapsulates hints to the causes behind Odets's ensuing obscurity, at least as far as the general population is concerned. While Odets is uncharacteristically more subtle with his Marxist message in Golden Boy, he seems to struggle in the play's last scene and can't restrain himself from getting back on his soap box and preaching against the evils and injustices that he simply cannot ignore. Respect for his convictions aside, it is an unfortunate sacrifice of what could have otherwise been a masterpiece filled with some very human characters engaged in human struggles. If Shakespeare has taught us anything, it is that the play is in its people and that the best authors let any message they wish to impart breath through them naturally. The rest is just propaganda and belongs in a more political realm, in the sincere opinion of this critic.
Having hesitations about seeing Golden Boy? Let them go. Despite any disparaging words in this review, the overall experience is something a true playgoer should be game for, and the rewards outweigh any deterrents. Odets is a seldom-sung hero of the Broadway boards these days and he more than deserves the attention of our ears. - C. Jefferson Thom
Golden Boy is running through January 20 at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY.
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.