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“Artists and people like that are freaks today,” sneers young Joe Bonaparte, a violin prodigy who opts to make his living from boxing, not music. “The world moves fast and they sit around like forgotten dopes.” If such brute pragmatism rang true when Golden Boy opened in 1937, it is, sadly, more relevant today. Who wants to be an artist when you can be a reality star? As for society, it flies at the speed of thought. Joe burns to move with such frantic velocity. The son of working-class Italian immigrants, he wants to pulverize a lifetime of humiliation; his highest aspiration is to own a fast car. “When you mow down the night with headlights,” Joe later exults, smeared in the blood of a crushed opponent, “nobody gets you!”
That line—like everything in Lincoln Center Theater’s powerhouse revival—comes through with brightly burnished force; the jazz rhythms and escapist pang are pure Odets. In a fall already steeped in excellent revivals—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Heiress and Glengarry Glen Ross—Golden Boy is the champion. Director Bartlett Sher, a superb 19-member ensemble and an ace design crew lift a neglected American classic and send it roaring back into the ring.
Sher and the company get so much right about Odets: New York as a multiethnic circus; the poetic street patois; cynical but tender dames; youths ulcerating for the good life; and the eternal struggle between ideals and the big score. That last battle Odets fought his whole life. He returned to New York from his first Hollywood foray in early ’37 with a movie-star wife and a pocket fat with cash. This leftist playwright, the newly minted voice of the Group Theatre, was perceived as a sellout. The Group, meanwhile, was close to extinction. Odets’s next piece needed to be a hit—and it was. Golden Boy cemented the writer’s reputation after the breakout Awake and Sing! of two years earlier. So Golden Boy was a smash, but it hasn’t been on Broadway since a 55-show remount in 1952. Sher’s crackling revival restores its place in the canon of great works we should see more often.
How does Sher do it? He hires the best around and listens to the language—and he couldn’t have picked a finer group of character actors and rising stars. Seth Numrich nails Joe’s tragic devolution from cocky, insecure kid to hubristic killer. Likewise, as Mr. Bonaparte, Tony Shalhoub deepens what could have been a cartoonish immigrant father with grace notes of dignity and even buried rage. Danny Mastrogiorgio finally has a role to suit his outsize talent and charisma as Tom Moody, Joe’s frustrated manager. And marvel at Danny Burstein’s understated, maternal coach Tokio, whose relationship with Joe has an almost erotic component. Finally, there’s Yvonne Strahovksi as the doomed Lorna Moon, carrying on an affair with Tom but longing for Joe. Strahovski (an Australian) creates a “period” performance that feels utterly organic and spontaneous.
It’s not all just exquisitely calibrated performances. Donald Holder’s lights slice through the space like sports-stadium kliegs or bathe the actors in painterly, noirish tableaux. Michael Yeargan’s detailed sets take us from street corners and cramped Broadway offices to the primal pits beneath the boxing arena. Catherine Zuber’s costumes combine historical accuracy with glamour.
Odets’s masterpiece is of its period. Some plot twists smack of melodrama, and some speeches hit hard on the nose. Nevertheless, the production never flinches, never shrinks from a dramatist who got his demons down on paper with a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue that snaps. Golden Boy is the sort of show that makes you proud to be in a theater. It sends you out into the night bruised and reeling, but triumphant.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote