Friday, November 30, 2012

Golden Boy: The 75th Anniversary Broadway Revival Of The Clifford Odets Play

This last Tuesday afternoon, Mister Muleboy and I made our way to Manhattan for a V.I.P. preview of Golden Boy, a revival of a 1937 Clifford Odets play about an up-and-coming boxer who also happens to be a talented violinist—a high concept that might strike you as faintly ridiculous, but then maybe you're not old enough to remember Mike Reid who some forty years ago was an all-pro defensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals as well as a concert pianist and later a Grammy-winning songwriter who was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.

As I keep telling you, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. So we were there with open minds.

Clifford Odets, as you probably know, was a playwright who had a brief but wildly-successful run on Broadway in the 1930s. He was also one of the founding members of the Group Theater, an influential theater company that introduced "Method" acting to America. His best-known stage work includes Waiting For Lefty, Golden Boy and The Country Girl. After tastes changed on Broadway in the early '40s—or should I say, after Broadway lost its taste for Clifford Odets—he decamped for Hollywood. He famously struggled there, but he did make one lasting contribution, collaborating on the screenplay to Sweet Smell of Success, starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, one of the most biting and cynical movies of the 1950s. He died in 1963.

That the Coen Brothers spoofed Odets in Barton Fink as a pretentious Broadway playwright lacking the talent even for hackwork perhaps should have given me pause before racing up to see what the New Yorker notes is a "rarely revived" play, but what can I tell you—I love the theater, I love free food and, to quote Cole Porter, I happen to like New York.

And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don't want to go to heaven, don't want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York.

After cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at Jeffrey Zakarian's Lambs Club with forty or so of our fellow blog-typing wallflowers—I am as dull and dreary in person as I am fascinating and unforgettable online—Mister Muleboy and I crossed 44th Street to the Belasco, a fully-refurbished turn-of-the-last-century jewel built by the legendary Broadway producer David Belasco. He designed the auditorium to create what he called a "little theater" experience, with three tiers of seats pushed close to the stage to foster an intimacy between the performers and the audience.

Sitting there, I thought it's no wonder that the Belasco has featured so much serious drama over the last century, including such plays as Johnny Belinda, The Song of Bernadette and A Raisin in the Sun, as well as much of the Group Theater's output. Indeed, Golden Boy premiered 75 years ago this month at the Belasco—and I'm thinking that its revival there now is not a coincidence.

This new production of Golden Boy stars Seth Numrich (War Horse) and Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck and Dexter) in the leads, with Tony Shalhoub, Danny Burstein, Ned Eisenberg and Dagmara Dominczyk, among others, in support. Tony winner Bartlett Sher directs.

The play opens in the seedy offices of Tom Moody, a boxing promoter who was once the best in New York, but who, like the rest of the country, has been struggling to make ends meet since the stock market crash of 1929. At his side is his mistress and girl Friday, Lorna Moon. Lorna is a self-described "tramp from Newark" who was plucked by Moody from a life that sounds vaguely like prostitution to live a life that still sounds vaguely like prostitution, only with one client, better clothes and a softer bed.

Moody is trying to figure out how to raise the $5000 necessary for a divorce settlement—the sap genuinely wants to marry Lorna—when into his office and into his life rushes Joe Bonaparte, a brash young punk who claims to be a great boxer in need only of a great manager to hit the big time. When one of the fighters in Moody's stable breaks a hand before that evening's bout, he shoves the kid into the ring and discovers, shock of shocks, he has a potential goldmine within his grasp.

The only problem is, the boy is also a gifted violinist who's afraid of ruining his delicate mitts on another man's chin. And how can you hope to win the title if you won't take your hands out of your pockets?

Enter the girl.

You know how to get men to do what you want them to do, Moody tells her. Get him to fight and we can finally get married. And so she sets out to seduce the kid. The thing is, though, as time passes, she can't quite decide whether she's manipulating the boy or falling in love with him. She's been batted around enough to want the security that Moody represents, but like most of us, still longs for true love.

Despite the complications of the love triangle, though, the central conflict is between Joe and his father, with the violin and Joe's rare talent for playing it—he's won a gold medal and a scholarship—standing in for the decision each of us must make eventually: what do you want out of life?

Joe's tired of being ashamed of his poverty and sees boxing as a shortcut to fame, fast cars and flashy clothes—all the things he's never had and his father, a Zen master who pushes a fruit cart, has never counted as important. His father will support Joe's choice as long as he's passionate about it, but what he sees in the boy suggests to him that it's the soulful beauty of the violin rather than the violent release of the ring that gives him true pleasure. That there's no real money in music, his father tells him, isn't important as long as you have a purpose in your life and a song in your heart.

But a parent can't live his child's life for him, he can only hope that as the boy makes his mistakes, the consequences aren't so permanent and debilitating that they ruin him for good. And therein lies the rub, for the violin requires delicate hands and boxing is the destroyer of hands. That boxing is also the destroyer of minds and souls—as represented by the angry, brain-addled palooka the father meets in act two—only exacerbates his fears.

In a time when, thanks to the internet, it's possible to be both a struggling artist and a capitalist fat cat, the choices presented here might seem a little quaint. Played out, though, as Golden Boy was in 1937, against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, the choice between the humane and the expedient wasn't a trivial one—the future of civilization hung in the balance.

So what did I think of the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

The acting is top-notch—especially that of Danny Mastrogiorgio as Tom Moody and Tony Shalhoub as the father. Shalhoub you probably remember from Monk, and I imagine he could add warmth and wit to a recitation of the phone book. Mastrogiorgio, who was previously unknown to me, turns a heel into someone you can root for without softening Moody's edges, and it's his performance you can't take your eyes off of. I'll be looking for more of him in the future.

As for the rest of it, the direction is crisp, the staging inventive, the costumes expertly evoke the period. Kudos all around.

The production's flaws lie within the play itself. At times, Odets was so keen to make his points, he seemed to forget his characters were people rather than allegories and plot devices. Lorna, especially, changes tack from scene to scene depending on which direction the story needs go, rendering her motivations not so much complex as murky.

And let me tell you, while complex is exhilarating, murky is frustrating, irritating, and finally enervating—especially by the end of a nearly three hour play.

Still, it's the sort of story that'll stick with you for days, giving you something to mull over rather than forget, and since for a change there was no traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, I'd call the evening a success—I was home in bed with Katie-Bar-The-Door well before the sun peeked over the horizon.

This being a classic film blog, I was naturally curious afterwards to see how the pros in Hollywood adapted the play to the big screen, and the following morning, I wound up watching the 1939 film adaptation starring Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden and Adolphe Menjou.

It's a more conventional crowd-pleaser, that's for sure.

The girl was already a hop skip and a jump from being a classic Barbara Stanwyck character and Hollywood simply straightened out her through line, turning her into a "dame from Newark" who rediscovers the heart of gold that was always beating in her tastefully slender bosom. Her Lorna is both bitchier and ultimately sweeter than Odets's conception because she, not Moody, is the schemer calling the shots. She's got the boy, her boss and the whole wide world by the balls and she relishes that it's up to her to decide whether and how hard to squeeze.

Like most of Stanwyck's best roles, she's interesting because—right or wrong—she's the one in control.

And how does the film handle Joe Bonaparte?—a pertinent issue since, Mike Reid or no Mike Reid, the choice between the boxing ring and the violin is not and never has been a real world dilemma. William Holden plays him as a tousled-haired schoolboy, twenty-one going on twelve, who nevertheless feels a need to pull his own weight. Music is wonderful, he concedes, but it doesn't put food on the table. The shift in motivation changes the story's central philosophical conflict from an issue of the eternal versus the ephemeral to one of the idealistic versus the practical, a subtle but significant difference.

With Adolphe Menjou playing Moody for laughs, Lee J. Cobb (at age 27!) channeling Chico Marx as William Holden's father, and the supporting cast delivering their lines at twice the speed of normal human speech, the tone is bright and brassy rather than portentous, more Guys and Dolls than Eugene O'Neill.

Does that make the movie better than the play? Well, it's shorter anyway. No doubt the changes were necessary to make the story palatable to an audience that had sacrificed a great deal more than the violin to survive the Great Depression. There's no denying, though, that the movie version of Golden Boy has always been regarded as a minor entry on each of its stars' resumes.

In the final analysis, the film is more a curiosity—a chance to marvel at an impossibly young William Holden eleven years before his breakthrough in Sunset Boulevard—than a necessity. Fit it into your schedule, maybe, after you've run through the best of Holden's (and Stanwyck's) work.

So how about the Broadway revival—can I recommend it to you?

Well, the Ice Capades it isn't, and if you're in town for one night looking for the dramatic equivalent of hot dogs and cotton candy, honestly, you should go elsewhere. But if you're hungry for a deep dish of heavy think in the company of Odets, the Group Theater and the ghosts of Old Broadway, by all means, dive in.

Just don't expect them to spoonfeed it to you.

Golden Boy is currently in previews at the Belasco. It officially opens on December 6 and runs through January 20, 2013. To visit the show's website, click here.

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