Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 6, 2012
Golden Boy by Clifford Odets. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg. Fight Director B.H. Barry. Cast (in alphabetical order): Michael Aronov, Danny Burstein, Demosthenes Chrysan, Anthony Crivello, Sean Cullen, Dagmara Dominczyk, Ned Eisenberg, Brad Fleischer, Karl Glusman, Jonathan Hadary, Daniel Jenkins, Danny Mastrogiorgio, Dion Mucciacito, Seth Numrich, Vayu O’Donnell, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Tony Shalhoub, Yvonne Strahovski, David Wohl.
But the journey of Joe Bonaparte remains a distinctly, essentially American one that's still sobering reality-morality tale it's been from the start. At his first appearance, Joe (Seth Numrich) is innocence personified: virginal and oriented toward his family and his art, but also single-minded in his pursuit of something... well, if not better, then at least more. It becomes obvious, not long after he arrives in the office of manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to sell himself that he's not quite all he seems — he may have had something to do with the fighter he wants to replace going out of commission — but he's ambitious, energetic, smug, and, to both Tom and his secretary-mistress Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), utterly forgettable.
Proving oneself proves the ultimate aphrodisiac for everyone around him, and it's not long before Joe is poised to steal Lorna as he's progressing through the ranks of the increasingly bloody New York circuit. He hasn't exactly turned his back on his father (Tony Shalhoub) or his union-organizing brother Frank (Lucas Caleb Rooney), but he doesn't see them as contributing to the forward mobility he needs and craves. When, late in the second of three acts, his hand is so injured that his boxing glove must be cut off, thus dissolving any chance of his returning to the violin, Joe's scream of primal ecstasy represents an apotheosis to the deific state that has always represented his alpha and omega: American success.
No, Odets was no more subtle here than in his other works, and it's no challenge to predict where Joe's trajectory will ultimately take him. But this one continues to compel because of its central conceit investigating the potential causticity of hope in the midst of the Great Depression's ravages, and that's something that remains sadly relevant today. Students of the soul who forsake their first loves for immediately practical but spiritually unwise reasons are yet staples of entertainment for the very good reason that life's demands on us, and our desires of it, rarely perfectly interlock. And whether the American dream is the curse Odets portrays, or a beacon of promise that sometimes arrives at a less-than-ideal endpoint, is a question that seemingly erupts in news about the Federal government every day in 2012.
Even so, nothing about this play functions automatically: It's propelled by its drive and its tone, and without both in ample supply and keen balance, it can feel antiquated and even quaint in its deconstruction of one man's deconstruction. This production escapes some of the possible pitfalls, but not all of them. The foremost problem is uneven casting.
Strahovski suffers from almost the opposite ailment: Her one-level accent and routine line deliveries barely divorced from spitting don't give Lorna the depth she needs, and suggest too overtly someone who's too hard to be broken by one man, let alone two. Shalhoub is on the right track with his earnestly sensitive portrayal, but he's almost too quiet and submissive to convince as being able to exert even the necessary temporary restraint on Joe's wayward velocity.
Mastrogiorgio, on the other hand, is superb, so much so that Tom almost becomes the fulcrum of the action: He's vivid but conflicted, a take-charge shepherd of others with tunnel vision so advanced he risks getting lost himself. Supporting performers Danny Burstein (as Joe's clear-eyed trainer, Tokio), Anthony Crivello (as the mobster who muscles his way into Joe's success), and Rooney are all likewise excellent, establishing without straining the politically and culturally charged atmosphere that is so crucial to the setting.
Their presence shows the value of many of Sher's instincts, but also the limitations of others. As he's demonstrated in his previous LCT Belasco revivals over the last six years, Sher has a bag of tricks that's frequently too shallow to properly serve his shows. This usually manifests itself as an aversion to naturalistic staging: The flying walls of Awake and Sing! (2006) set that initially promising evening on slow-sink mode, and an absence of walls altogether defanged Joe Turner's Come and Gone (2009) almost as soon as it started. Golden Boy, unlike the others, unfolds over multiple locales, and thus requires a more fluid approach that would seem to be in line with Sher's established aesthetic.
But if Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan (who also served on those previous shows) have attempted to do just that, their solution is halfhearted and unfocused. Without having settled on a solid theme or concepts, the constantly moving half and quarter walls become a roiling combination of realism and fantasy that evince the best qualities of neither and prevent consistency from ever taking hold. This is devastating in the earliest scenes before Numrich has found his footing; but even later on, things feel like they're poised to spiral out of control, and not in a good way.
Odets's version of that message, rendered in his script in ways alternately guttural and poetic, is much more captivating, and this Golden Boy eventually rights itself enough to drive it home in spite of the roadblocks. The playwright knew early on that there was no easy road to acclaim, fame, and fortune, let alone without the core that's so easy to lose your grip on, and those who manage to ascend to the top will seldom find the destination all it should be. If that message seems particularly important for Sher to remember, it wouldn't do the rest of us any harm, either — and seeing this still timely play will make it one that's that much harder to forget.