Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk and Michael Aronov. Photo Paul Kolnik
Reviewed by James Karas
Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy opened at the Belasco Theatre in New York in 1937. The Lincoln Center Theater is giving it a major revival this year at the same theatre. If you are quick with arithmetic you will have calculated that this is the 75th anniversary of the play.
I found the play creaky, sentimental, melodramatic and rather obvious in its plot development. The production emphasized those qualities and added some overacting, a couple of awful accents and sets that did nothing to improve matters.
The play is set in New York in 1936-7 and it involves a boxer named Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), the golden boy of the title. He is a talented violinist but is drawn into the glory, money and brutality of the world of boxing where he excels.
The play has a large number of characters that resemble cardboard figures from B movies. There are some real conflicts, of course, including Joe’s subconscious doubts about his decision to abandon music. When he runs into a violinist before a boxing match he is so perturbed that he fights badly.
His Manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio) is a tough-talking man who has Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski), a blonde floosy with a good heart, for a mistress. She loves Tom but falls in love with Joe and with that type of triangle things are guaranteed to be hackneyed and go badly. The love scenes are full of awkward stock phrases that make for pretty unbearable dialogue.
Joe’s father (played by Tony Shalhoub) is an Italian immigrant who wants his son to become a violinist. Shalhoub tries to affect an Italian accent but he achieves it rarely, loses it frequently and should never have attempted it.
That is nothing compared to what tough-guy Mafioso-type Eddie Fuseli (Antony Crivello) does. He is the well-dressed, tough-talking brute that is a caricature of the type. His Italian accent is simply awful and no amount of over-acting can give this cartoon life or credibility.
The play moves from Moody’s office to the Bonaparte house to the dressing rooms of boxing rinks. Mr. Bonaparte has a chubby daughter (played in a nightie and dressing gown by Dagmara Dominczyk) who is married to Siggie (Michael Aronov), a doltish Jew and they provide or are supposed to provide some comic relief and I suppose contrast to Joe’s very different ambitions.
There are several fights but we are spared the trouble of seeing them and hear only descriptions in the dressing room. We see or hear about some other boxers and “brain-damaged” is the politest description that can be ascribed to them.
The costumes were very impressive. They must have made much better suits in those days. Lorna wears a number of beautiful dresses and the men have finely tailored three-piece suits and tuxedos into which they change with admirable speed. Maybe they don’t make clothes like they used to but that is hardly the point. Full marks to Catherine Zuber for costume design.
The back wall of the set for Moody’s office and the Bonaparte apartment consists of the wall of a tenement building. It looks as if the characters are sitting in the courtyard of a building when they are in fact inside. The same wall serves for a street scene but it is changed for the dressing room scenes. What was set designer Michael Yeargan thinking of?
Odets (1906-1963) has taken his position on the second rung of 20th century American playwrights and he is worth producing. Golden Boy is not just about an immigrant boxer but also about the choices facing America then and perhaps now. The brute force of the boxing world and the gentler civilization of music; the simple life of domesticity versus the appeal of glory and money are contrasted. Those American choices were and are important but their presentation in this creaky and awkward production make relatively little impression.
Director Bartlett Sher is unable to emphasize the strong points of the play and leaves us with only a decent production that could use some grease to decrease the creakiness and relieve some of the awkwardness of the piece.