Sher’s ‘Golden Boy’ revives Odets’ insights

Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein in Golden Boy. (Photos by Paul Kolnik)

Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein in Golden Boy. (Photos by Paul Kolnik)

Bartlett Sher continues his investigation of American Theater history with the 75th anniversary production of Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy. As in his revivals of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and South Pacific, Sher looks at the past in order to understand the present. He reveals that Odets’ story of Joe Bonaparte, a young violin prodigy from Brooklyn’s ethnic ghetto who becomes a prizefighter, explores the conflicting ambition that still defines the modern American condition. We’re simply unused to noticing that conflict in the winner-take-all American Idol age.

Although Golden Boy is often referred to as a boxing drama, it isn’t about the physicality of the sport (as was the 1996 Public Theater production Blade to the Heat). Odets poses Joe in the midst of an adult world where unhappy compromises reveal the choices people make in search of their identities: manager Tom Moody, who dislikes Joe but exploits his youthful potential; Lorna Moon, who, despite being Moody’s mistress, falls in love with Joe; Papa Bonaparte, Joe’s immigrant father whose hopes in Joe’s artistry get brutalized by urban realties.

Sher interweaves all these diminished yearnings in a graceful first act, using a stark, body-conscious lighting scheme resembling George Bellows. The period décor (from the clothes to an FDR voice-over about the Works Progress Administration) idealizes the Depression era’s similarity to the present. This isn’t so much political simplification or nostalgia as it is a poignant reminder of what remains true in Odets’ vision of urban struggle. The signal opening line: “Gimme some air.”

If the characters seem stifled by their historical moment, that’s part of what Odets and Sher see as the play’s existential truth. It’s what makes “cock-eyed wonder” Joe Bonaparte such a deeply sad Everykid. Joe’s energy, his love of speed (“With speed you don’t need to think”), combines restlessness with ambition. His untutored aggression matches Lorna’s passive self-torment. She’s among those “girls who look like they don’t have parents.” Yet Joe’s father—the play’s most embarrassingly dated, sentimental figure—can’t save his son from society’s competitive temper.

Yvonne Strahovski and Danny Mastrogiorgio.

Yvonne Strahovski and Danny Mastrogiorgio.

Odets’ grasp of this commonplace American tragedy contains the basis of much pop fiction about success and social mobility—from The Jazz Singer and What Makes Sammy Run to Humoresque, Sparkle and Hustle and Flow. Odets gets at the split between soul and success as it especially affects working-class males. Joe is torn between art and masculinity—what he feels and what’s expected of him; trying to satisfy his unrealized sense of self. Sher’s highlight portrays Joe’s violin solo as spirituality radiating outside his body that haunts anyone in range to hear it (including the audience). Boxing is a more vulgar affair.

Second strongest moment (well acted by Seth Numrich and Danny Burstein) is boxing trainer Tokio’s locker-room advice; his tender understanding and devious encouragement (calling Joe “Honey”) connects to how Joe’s father’s vague egotism is also complicated by love. Joe’s own egotism takes him beyond heroism, and under these social-economic circumstances, his dilemma makes him beyond saving. When warned about his arrogance, Joe honestly responds, “The essence of prizefighting is immodesty.” In Golden Boy, Sher seeks Odets’ essential, useful meanings. The production doesn’t pander. As once said of Sher, “He’s as wary of pandering as the majority of his contemporaries are unaware of its dangers.”

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair.