Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy is being given a first-class revival by Lincoln Center Theater. Propelled by director Bartlett Sher’s cogent and sensitive staging and acted by an ensemble of 19 players, Odets 1937 pugilist drama is brought to new life. Appropriately it is playing at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street, where it first debuted 75 years ago.
Golden Boy has always been Odets’ most popular play, with the original Broadway production running 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 Golden Boy’s continuing popularity 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 was his life. In it he found 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 discovered that sensitive, artistic young men were 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, makes lots of money to buy the clothes and big high-speeding cars he coveted, but in the process breaks his hands, so that he can no longer play the violin.
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’ special talent of finding the poetry and music of the street vernacular of the day. He also has impeccably cast every role, from “golden boy” Numrich and Shalhoub, who gives a touching performance as his father, to Joe’s willowy blond love interest Yvonne Strahovski, an Australian actress, making an auspicious first New York appearance. The play’s secondary roles have not been overlooked, with Danny Burstein as his trainer Tokio, Danny Mastrogiorgio; Tom Moody, his moody manager; or Jonathan Hadary, his father’s friend and confidant Mr. Carp. Sher sees that every one of Odets' large cast of characters come meticulously come to life.
No detail in the production is out of sync or given short shrift. The production moves with evocative 1930s style thanks to 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 since Joe sacrifices art literally to fight for success and affluence, the play might be autobiographical – a purgation for how Odets’ 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-act 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 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 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 the sting?”
Three or four times he left Hollywood to write a new play. One, The Big Knife, will be revived by Roundabout Theatre Company in the spring. It’s a bitter melodramatic attack on the kind of men who ran the movie industry in the 30s and 40s. Later he again returned to New York with The Country Girl, which on the stage – but not in the film version with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, which was distorted – had some of the tough authenticity and truthful dialogue that marked his work when he was at the top of his form. His last Broadway play was The Flowering Peach, a free-wheeling retelling of the book of Genesis story of Noah and the ark; it was less popular, but nonetheless impressive. It served as the basis for the Richard Rodgers and Danny Kaye 1970 musical Two by Two.
In the years between Waiting for Lefty and The Flowering Peach, the public’s attitude of Odets changed greatly, but his writing always retained his wide understanding of what worked dramatically in the theater, and he never lost his gift for reproducing accurately the speech of middle class Americans or his ability to juxtapose the comic with the pathetic.
Odets was politically radical in his early years, and this behavior came back to haunt him later in life. In 1952, along with his 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 the 1954 opening of The Flowering Peach.
In his earnest search for standards by which men can live, and in the enormous intensity of his feelings, he resembled Eugene O’Neill. But O’Neill stuck to the stage where he found freedom and the chance to develop. Theater folk felt Odets devoted too much of a potential great career to making movies.
When he died in 1963 at age 57, obits pointed out 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 crucial influence on the American dramatists like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and are significant milestones in our dramatic literature. This is why Lincoln Center’s commitment to bring Odets plays Golden Boy and Awake and Sing! back to Broadway is such an admirable and worthwhile endeavor.