Feature

Golden Boy

“I can’t praise Lincoln Center Theater too strongly” for daring to mount this revival of Clifford Odets’s 1937 drama.

The Belasco Theatre, New York,

(212) 239-6200

***

“I can’t praise Lincoln Center Theater too strongly” for daring to mount this revival, said Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal. Before its opening at the Belasco, Clifford Odets’s 1937 drama about a young Italian-American violinist tempted by a lucrative career in boxing hadn’t been staged as a straight play on Broadway since 1952. Small wonder: “It has 19 speaking roles and requires five sets,” not to mention dialogue that, while capturing the “coarse immigrant patter” of the era, could come across today as irredeemably hokey. Underneath it all, though, lies “a true and telling parable” of American ambition and its perils, and director Bartlett Sher has given it “a production of the utmost splendor.” 

That’s because the show is “as much sung as performed,” said Scott Brown in New York magazine. Sher was no doubt conscious of the fact that stark realism and Odets’s “musical palookaspeak” don’t exactly go together. So he chose to stage Golden Boy as a “broad, brassy grand opera,” with the drama heightened and the performers playing to the balcony. Remarkably, he’s managed to keep all of them “in the same mighty key.” Seth Numrich gives “a white-hot performance” as Joe Bonaparte, a gifted musician who, to the dismay of his father (Tony Shalhoub), becomes a mob-backed contender in the ring instead of a virtuoso. Shalhoub is likewise astonishing: Despite having to “deliver an entire show in a red-sauce accent,” his restrained, layered performance never comes close to maudlin. 

At times, the show is “dragged down by predictable plot mechanics,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. There’s never a doubt, for example, that Joe’s foray into the ring will end tragically. But if the play’s structure seems dated, the central conflict is eternally resonant—“Do you spend your life trying to shine in a world that values only the mighty dollar, or seek instead to fulfill a humbler, more humane destiny?” Joe’s father may long for his son to have, in his words, “truthful success,” but that “remains as elusive a goal today” as it was 75 years ago.

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