After great success with his plays Waiting for Left and Awake and Sing! in 1935 — and a stint of movie writing in Hollywood — Odets returned to Broadway with Golden Boy in 1937. Being familiar with the first two plays, I looked forward to a chance to get to know Golden Boy. I wanted to like it. I even expected to be excited by it.
Here’s my view: Golden Boy is a pretty good play, and could be powerful with great actors, particularly a resonant actor in the part of Joe Bonaparte, the young boxer. In this production, the pretty good play has pretty good actors and a good attempt to bring the world of boxing on stage — but none good enough to overcome the thinness of the characterizations. It tells a dramatic story but with stereotypes, and the fundamental premise, that Bonaparte has potential as a great violinist is never made convincing so — much to my surprise — I found it somewhat tiresome. (A review of an earlier production says Odets himself thought the situation implausible, though the reviewer doesn’t mention the source.)
Joe Bonaparte is a young kid with two talents — for the violin and for boxing (welterweight division). Caught in this conflict between art and filthy lucre — reflecting a similar conflict in Odets’ life that took him temporarily from Broadway (“art”) to Hollywood (“filthy lucre”) — Joe gives in to the lure of fame and money.
Bonaparte turns a deaf ear to the tactful, loving attempts of his father, a music loving Italian, to keep him on the straight and narrow high level career path as a violinist, while the boxing lure is sweetened all the more when Joe falls in love with Lorna, the girlfriend of his good guy manager, Tom. Sure enough, in his quick rise to near the top in the boxing world, he breaks his hands, ruining them for the violin in a point of no return which was, however, inevitable from the start. He’s so good at anything he does — violin, boxing — he becomes a contender fast, at which point the mob, in the person of sharp dressing Eddie Fuseli, enters to buy a piece of him with an offer that can’t be refused.
The setting and characters are gritty — boxers, trainers, gangsters, cops, as the cast list describes the extras. One of the cleverest and most interesting aspects of the play is the way Odets has the brutal boxing matches occur offstage, with their bloody outcomes conveyed to the audience through what happens in the dressing room, giving us an intimate view of the vast gladiators’ combat taking place out there. The production tries to be gritty: scenes set in club gyms include well choreographed sparring boxers. But the arrangement of the mechanical rolling in and out of set changes is distracting and out of tone with the play.
Seth Numrich, who plays Joe Bonaparte, is a good actor and summons up a lot of passion — and even develops a tougher “New York accent” — as the physical and psychological conflicts intensify, but he’s just too refined and delicate for the part. I understand William Holden played Bonaparte in the 1939 film: this I want to see. Meanwhile, I thought what the young Brando would have done with it. At one point a punch drunk boxer nags his manager to arrange a match with Bonaparte and the manager tells his boxer he’ll “never make [Bonaparte’s] weight,” but the punch-drunk guy looks a lot thicker and stronger than Numrich, and a lot more at home in the world of in-and-off-the-ropes.
Danny Mastrogiorgio has a chance to show some appealing subtlety in the play’s relatively complex role of Bonaparte’s self-interested but not ruthless manager. Yvonne Strahovski does as well as one can with a stereotyped character, the not-so-dumb blond boxing manager’s girl friend amd she looks great in those wonderful ’30’s clothes, narrow and with shoulder pads.
Anthony Crivello as the mobster Eddie is Tough, Premptive, Scary, Snappily Dressed and un-nuanced (again I found myself wishing for Brando, now in his Godfather guise). Joe’s father, Tony Shalhoub, is just too angelically good, as is Joe’s union organizer brother, Frank, played by Lucas Caleb Rooney, though Frank’s head wound, won for a cause of helping his fellow men is an interesting foil to Joe’s bloody wounds won beating up another guy in the boxing ring. Joe’s father’s spiritual Jewish soul mate, Mr. Carp, played by Jonathan Hadary, is so superficial in his “deep” mutterings and name dropping of philosophers that he makes you smile. Carp’s an extraneous character — he makes his weak stab at giving the play “universality” and disappears.
The play gives a look at the underside of the boxing world and its extremes of brutality, and treatment of the boxers as “meat” — there are bloody moments that make you catch your breath. But we never really understand why Bonaparte is as he is, what makes him run — it can’t be just because he’s a little cross eyed, can it? Especially since we never see that at work or believe it. I’d say the trait of “cross eyed” was tossed in to help individualize Odets’ unclear characterization of his main character.
I can imagine that actors who draw on deep inward resonances — like the method actors for whom it was written, and who played in the original production — would help to overcome inconsistencies and superficialities. This would allow the play’s best qualities to emerge. The story is somewhat implausible but — one can suspend disbelief. The glimpse of a tough milieu not well known to many of us is fascinating. And the rush to the heights and descent to the depths — recalling The Great Gatsby — holds great drama. This production is paced so briskly and brightly that the actors don’t have the chance to give their fullest, and the play’s genuine strengths are not fulfilled. Still, in a Broadway season sparse on serious plays, this may do well, and I sort of hope it does. With a play so well meaning, it’s hard not to be in its corner.
Golden Boy plays at the Belasco Theatre (a gorgeous theatre worth seeing in its own right) on West 44th Street in NYC.