“Is the fist mightier than the fiddle?” If you aren’t true to yourself can you still achieve true success? Can one truly love with hate in his or her heart? Clifford Odets’s remarkable play, Golden Boy, tears through these emotional and moral questions with the same grace and precision of a prizefighter in the ring. Lincoln Center Theater’s extraordinary seventy-fifth anniversary production, now playing at the Belasco Theatre, where it originally played in 1937, is a real knockout and by far one of the best plays of 2012!
At the helm of this steady ship is director Bartlett Sher. You may recall that Mr. Sher has had major success in 2006 with Odets’s Tony Award winning revival of Awake and Sing! as well as highly celebrated revivals of South Pacific and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, all at Lincoln Center. Mr. Sher is truly an actor’s director, and he has assembled a riveting 19-person cast including Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, and Danny Burstein, all of whom are giving dynamite performances. There is a real sense that the cast understands Odets’s naturalistic, often poetic, and directly honest style of writing, and Sher stages the play expertly and aids in bringing these people to life. Some of the characters, for example Tony Shalhoub’s Mr. Bonaparte, an old-world Italian man speaking in broken English, could easily come off as cliché or cartoonish. In the hands of this trustworthy director, however, and the fantastically talented Shalhoub (Lend Me a Tenor) we see a fully realized, kind-hearted character that only wants the best for his children. He wants them to find their own “truthful success” in life. Bartlet Sher found a way to connect with the vernacular of Odets’s text and communicate that through his actors, the production’s staging, and his design team in a way that makes this play feel fresh, gritty, stylish, and wholeheartedly dramatic at the same time!
Golden Boy tells the story of Joe Bonaparte (the phenomenal Seth Numrich), a young, gifted violinist who forsakes his family and artistic dreams in service of his desire of fame and fortune as a championship boxer. Seth Numrich’s smartly layered and nuanced performance is astonishing. Numrich’s ability to take his character on the journey from well-mannered uncertainty and insecurity to a ferociously confident fighting machine is riveting to watch. Danny Burnstein’s tenderness as Tokio, Joe’s trainer, is heartbreakingly profound and moving. Yvonne Strahovski’s Lorna Moon, “the dame of Newark” who falls in love with Joe in the midst’s of an affair she is already having with Joe’s manager, is tough as nails and wisecracking on the outside and an emotional disaster on the inside. Strahovski, making a stunning Broadway debut, is able to transform a formulaic 1930s blonde bombshell character in to a tortured soul that evokes just as much care from the audience as the man she is in love with. There are a few moments in Odets’s script that veer toward melodrama and heavy-handedness. This astounding group of actors, under Mr. Sher’s wing, is able to overcome the text’s limitations and reach that completely realized, three-dimensional level of bringing characters to the stage that is mesmerizing to watch.
It can not go with out mention that Lincoln Center Theater and Sher have assembled a top-notch crew of designers for Golden Boy who deliver the TKO of the evening. Michael Yeargan’s dark and gritty set not only smartly establishes locations but also evokes a feeling and mood. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are period-appropriate and feel like they belong in the same world Mr. Yeargan has created. My favorite element is Donald Holder’s lighting design. The entire show is lit with white lights, and his ability to direct our attention and make moments shiner throughout is remarkable.
Nowadays commercial producers do not take big chances on plays. Mix in a large cast, multiple sets, costumes, and no bankable major star and you may not even get Bialystock and Bloom to invest in revival of a play! It is refreshing that a non-profit like Lincoln Center Theater will take a chance on a large, fully staged revival of one of the truly great plays in the American canon. What we learn is when a big risk is taken there can be a huge reward. In the context of the play, we come to find that the fist might just be mightier than the fiddle and the quest for one’s truthful success and love can be tragic. So tighten up your sparring gloves and prepare for a tour de force production! It’s remarkable that a play first performed at the same theatre in 1937 can still pack a powerful punch seventy-five years later.