NEW YORK – Clifford Odets’s play "Golden Boy" is being given a first-class revival by the Lincoln Center Theater. Propelled by director Bartlett Sher’s cogent and sensitive staging and acted by an ensemble of 19 players, the 1937 pugilist drama is brought to new life. Appropriately, it is playing at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street, where it debuted 75 years ago.
"Golden Boy" has always been Odets’s most popular play; the original Broadway production ran for 250 performances. In 1939, it was successfully filmed with the young William Holden in the lead, and in 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. starred in a long-running musical adaptation.
One of the reasons for the continuing popularity of "Golden Boy" is that it has an appealing main character in Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a cockeyed city kid of Italian descent who early on in the play admits he’s "a sparrow wanting to be an eagle." Initially, he wants a music career playing the violin. Music is his life. In it he finds release and fulfillment. His immigrant father (Tony Shalhoub) even saves money to buy him an expensive violin. But Joe, in the tough, hard world outside his New York tenement, discovers that sensitive, artistic young men are likely to be trampled on and destroyed. To get money and also to get some kind of physical revenge on that contemptuous world, he becomes a boxer. He fights his way to the top and makes lots of money to buy the clothes and high-speed cars he covets, but in the process, breaks his hands, and so can no longer play the violin.
Mr. Sher has directed the play with a wondrously receptive hand, soft-peddling the play’s inherent melodrama and some of its clichéd, old-fashioned dialogue, and emphasizing Odets’s special talent for finding the poetry and music of the street vernacular of the day. He also has impeccably cast every role from Mr. Numrich and Mr. Shalhoub (in a peerless performance) to Joe’s willowy blonde love interest, Yvonne Strahovski, an Australian actress, making her auspicious first New York appearance. The play’s secondary roles have not been overlooked, such as Danny Burstein as Joe’s trainer Tokio; Danny Mastrogiorgio as Tom Moody, his moody manager and Jonathan Hadary, as his father’s friend and confidante, Mr. Carp. Mr. Sher sees that every one of Odets’s characters meticulously comes to life.
No detail in the production is out of sync or given short shrift; it moves with evocative 1930s style, thanks to Mr. Sher’s longtime design collaborators, Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holden (lighting).
Odets subtitled an early draft of "Golden Boy" as "a modern allegory," and some critics felt that because Joe literally sacrifices art to fight for success and affluence, the play might be autobiographical – a purgation for what Odets’s friends labeled him, " a Hollywood sellout," when he migrated to California to write for the movies. With the success of "Golden Boy," Odets got his chance to go to California, where he spent a large part of the rest of his life. As a movie writer, he earned a lot of money, but very few of the movies he made are remembered, with the exception of "Sweet Smell of Success," a 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis noir classic.
Odets had started out as an actor and was acting in Boston with The Group Theater’s production of Sidney Kingsley’s "Men in White" when he wrote "Waiting for Lefty," a rabble-rousing one-acter about striking taxi drivers, for The Group’s playwriting unit contest. It won first prize and was produced on Broadway by The Group. Because of the terrific excitement of "Waiting for Lefty" and the immense insight and honesty of his next play, "Awake and Sing!" which was revived in 2006 by Lincoln Center Theater and directed by Mr. Sher, Odets soon became one of Broadway’s most promising young playwrights.
His abandonment of the stage was considered most regrettable by those who felt he would write no screenplays for posterity and almost treasonable by the left-wingers on the drama world’s fringe, who considered him, with the success of "Waiting For Lefty," one of their own.
He took up movie writing for practical reasons. Until "Golden Boy" succeeded at the box office, he had experienced critical success, but had made little money. He had to borrow $2,000 from John Garfield, the original on-stage "Golden Boy," to get to Hollywood and establish himself there. Once there, as predicted, he wrote scenarios so conventional and tame that playwright and critic George S. Kaufman asked, "Odets, where is thy sting?"
Odets was politically radical in his early years and his behavior came back to haunt him later in life. In 1952, along with The Group Theater colleague-director Elia Kazan, Odets lost much of the public’s admiration when they both named names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Both men avoided Hollywood’s black list, but the public’s negative reaction to their testimony haunted them until their deaths, even though Odets had rejected all the "isms" by 1954.
In his earnest search for standards by which men can live and in the enormous intensity of his feelings, Odets resembled Eugene O’Neill. But O’Neill stuck to the stage, where he found freedom. Theater folk felt Odets devoted too much of a potentially great career to making movies.
When he died in 1963 at age 57, obits said that Odets had lots of money, but too few plays of first rank. Yet this is not really true, since the best of his work has had such crucial influence on American dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and is a significant milestone in our dramatic literature. This is why Lincoln Center’s commitment to bringing Odets’s plays back to Broadway is such an admirable and worthwhile endeavor.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.