Review: Golden Boy

© Paul Kolnik

Clifford Odets’ rarely seen 1937 drama Golden Boy is receiving a loving revival courtesy of the Lincoln Center Theater, which previously mounted his classic Awake and Sing! to great acclaim. Given historical resonance by its being performed at the Belasco, the very theater in which it was presented by the legendary Group Theatre 75 years ago, this stirringly staged and beautifully acted production succeeds in bringing this melodramatic but still powerful work to dramatic life.

Director Bartlett Sher has assembled a superb nineteen-member ensemble for the show, which tells the story of Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), the son of a widowed Italian immigrant (Tony Shalhoub) who dreams of his son fulfilling his talents as a violinist. Instead, Joe decides to go for the easy money as a prize fighter, despite the risks it poses to his hands. After brashly barging into the office of low-level boxing promoter Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), Joe begins his ascent to the top while falling in love with Moody’s beautiful young mistress Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski, of TV’s Dexter), who soon returns his affections.

As his father helplessly watches in dismay from the sidelines, Joe quickly succumbs to his vision of the American dream, which in this case includes the complicity of a vicious, dandyish gangster (the compelling Anthony Crivello) who takes an unhealthy interest in his latest acquisition. He eventually indeed rises to the top, but at a tragic personal cost.

Odets’ drama, inspired by his own self-disgust at selling out to Hollywood, has no shortage of hoary elements. The characters are often stereotypical—the father’s Jewish best friend, the philosophy spouting Mr. Carp (Jonathan Hadary), being a prime example—and the play is not exactly subtle in its hammering home of its themes and allegories. But it remains compelling nonetheless, thanks to its frequently funny, pungent dialogue and its sheer conviction.

Director Sher displays a great affinity for the dated material, giving the production a vintage feel in its performances and design that honors the past while not devolving into a museum piece. The look of the show is gorgeous, from Michael Yeargan’s striking sets seemingly inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings to Donald Holder’s expressionistic lighting to Catherine Zuber’s period-perfect, character revealing costumes.

The large cast composed of many theater veterans strikes all the right notes. Although Numrich is never fully convincing as a literally killer fighter, he delivers a sensitive, anguished portrayal that is always riveting. The gorgeous Strahovski, in the role originally played by Frances Farmer, perfectly conveys Lorna’s complex mixture of toughness and vulnerability; Shalhoub is deeply moving as the father who loves his son no matter what; and Danny Burstein beautifully underplays as Joe’s caring trainer. But there isn’t a weak link the cast, which also includes such reliable pros as Ned Eisenberg, Daniel Jenkins and Dagmara Domincyzyk.

Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St. 212-239-6200. Through Jan. 20.