Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit. By Clifford Odets. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 35mins; two intermissions.
Theater review by Kris Vire
“You’re loaded with fireworks,” someone tells aspiring prizefighter Joe Bonaparte, the titular figure in Clifford Odets’s 1937 drama. The explosive metaphor aptly describes Nate Santana’s performance in Jonathan Berry’s solid revival for Griffin Theatre Company. As played by Santana, a sinewy young actor with an intense, hooded stare, Joe is a barely sheathed bundle of nerves, a powder keg looking for a place to go off. “You’re expecting opposition all the time,” his brother, Frank (Niall McGinty), tells him.
On the cusp of his 21st birthday, Joe feels oppressed by the confines of his New York neighborhood and the home he shares with his Italian immigrant father (Norm Woodel), brother, sister Anna (Laura Lapidus) and her husband, Siggie (Morgan Maher). By stepping into the ring, Joe intends on punching up and getting out.
Joe’s a talented lightweight fighter who talks his way into the office of manager Tom Moody (Mark Pracht) and on a track to confront the reigning champ, an unseen bruiser known as the Baltimore Chocolate Drop. The trouble is, Joe pulls his punches, “afraid of his hands” because he’s also a gifted violinist—which his father sees as a more honorable career.
To convince Joe to choose the ring over the strings, Moody assigns his good-hearted, long-suffering mistress Lorna (Nina O’Keefe, earning our sympathy with sad eyes and a Joisey squawk) to make his case. But Lorna falls for the kid, and it starts to look like there’ll be no winners in this fight.
Golden Boy marked Odets’s return to the Group Theatre following his first foray in Hollywood, after his 1935 successes with the biting social critiques of Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! The psychological underpinnings of Joe’s art-versus-fame struggle, then, seem both clear and too simplistically dichotomic.
But there’s real beauty to be mined from the piece, and Berry’s fluid production finds some striking moments both emotionally and visually, making smart use of the tinted warehousesque windows of Dan Stratton’s set and Rebecca Barrett’s moody lighting.
The large 15-actor ensemble has its ups and downs, with some of the supporting cast either swallowing or overplaying the pugnacious poetry of Odets’s rat-a-tat dialogue. Santana and O’Keefe, though, attack the language in all its slangy, florid glory. They make fine sparring partners; even when Joe and Lorna finally embrace a life together—“We have each other! Somewhere there must be happy boys and girls who can teach us the way of life!” Lorna exclaims—you can hear in the music of their voices that some part of them knows they’re already down for the count.