The bad news: It’s been a weak season for new plays on Broadway. The good news: There are some worthwhile revivals. The worst news: My very favorite, a 75th anniversary production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, closes tomorrow at the Belasco. Damn. And double damn for not saying anything before it until now. With more support, a limited run might have carried on for a few more rounds.
Recently reupholstered, and still gleaming, the Belasco may be my favorite Broadway house, a true jewel box. I’ve seen several favorite plays there, among them the thrilling World War I piece Journey’s End and the musical Passing Strange (and a favorite flop, Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula tuner). A few seasons back Lincoln Center Theater revived Odets’ Awake and Sing! there, with Mark Ruffalo, Lauren Ambrose, and the late Ben Gazzara. The excitement you felt at the Belasco was that of dust being blown off a neglected parchment and a fine play being restored to vital, blazing life before your eyes.
Like Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy is being revived in its original Broadway home. Surprisingly, given its status as the legendary Group Theatre’s biggest hit, it hasn’t had much of a half life–there is a bowdlerized 1939 movie, notable as William Holden’s big break alongside Barbara Stanwyck, who went to bat for the struggling actor, and a reasonably successful Sammy Davis, Jr., musical from 1964 that is equally obscure today. Much the same creative team has brought it back, including the fine director Bartlett Sher, scenic designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber, all fastidiously recreating the period. I can’t imagine them not mounting the forthcoming Roundabout revival of Odets’ The Big Knife, however eager I am to see it. (Donald Holder provides the chiaroscuro lighting.)
The juice comes from Odets’ powerful writing, as he tackles a Jazz Singer-ish storyline that had resonance during the Great Depression and remains timeless in our not-so-great recession. A promising violinist, Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich, from War Horse), is the pride of his immigrant family, particularly his beaming father (Tony Shalhoub). But Joe, mired in the working class, plans to turn his hands into fists and succeed as a boxer. With some reluctance, boxing manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio) takes him on–and his misgivings mount as Joe, flush with early victories, takes an interest in his mistress, Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski). When a flamboyant gangster, Eddie (Anthony Crivello), takes an interest in Joe, the stakes rise higher. In an age of trios or quartets on Broadway, Odets has peopled his play richly, with close to 20 speaking parts, all of them indelibly, impeccably “New Yawk.” Among them are Siggie, Joe’s striving brother-in-law (Michael Aronov), and Tokio (Danny Burstein), his world-weary manager. They ensure that’s there not a dull moment in this three-act, three-hour play; if you felt rooked by the 75-minute-or-so The Anarchist and The Other Place, trust me, no gypping here.
The acting and staging further ensure that Golden Boy is no museum piece. Numrich, Mastrogiorgio, and Strahovski (the Australia-born beauty from Dexter and The Guilt Trip) are particularly good enacting a love triangle that should end obviously, with boy getting girl. But Odets has provided several valid reasons for Lorna to stick it out with Moody and not her callow suitor, and he shows Tom a certain, complicating sympathy that Mastogiorgio plays expertly. Nor does the playwright sentimentalize Mr. Bonaparte’s old world mindset. Sure, Joe should pursue the violin–but the world outside is hot with excitement and money and celebrity. It’s a tough choice, one that Odets, pursued by Hollywood, felt acutely. (The Big Knife and his much-quoted screenplay for 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success dwell on the dark side of life in the spotlight.)
I’ll return to this column with a review of the revivals of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Picnic. But Golden Boy is the gold standard, and I’m sorry to see it go. Seeing it at the Belasco, then exiting into the cold night air of New York, is as exhilarating as time travel.