In Golden Boy, I can see more clearly than ever the influence of playwright Clifford Odets on my favorite 20th Century American playwright, Tennessee Williams. In this tragic drama Odets hits on a theme that would be central to Williams work: the struggle of the fragile, precious artistic spirit to survive in brutal circumstances.
In Golden Boy that struggle takes place in the body and soul of Joe Bonaparte (played with great “body and soul” by Seth Numrich), a young, gifted violinist torn between pursuing his beloved music or earning big money as a prize fighter. Odets’s 1937 drama is surprisingly fresh – sure, there’s the odd line here or there that seems a little corny, and the last two scenes wrap up an otherwise compelling plot in a contrived and melodramatic way (though the actual dialogue is moving). But in general, Odets works over some really big ideas with great intelligence and sensitivity.
Director Bartlett Sher helps this immensely by evolving a sharp contrast between the humble, thoughtful demeanor of Joe’s father (played by Tony Shalhoub with the deepest humanity I’ve seen him display in any medium), and the brash, cruel, even hateful attitude displayed by one and all in the boxing world. Odets only portrays two people in the boxing business as interested in Joe for himself, his trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and his manager’s mistress Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), and Burstein and Stahovski indeed give the most impressive performances of the evening after Numrich and Shalhoub.
Sher seems to be on a mission to revive the reputation of Odets, adding this to his similarly affectionate revival of the playwright’s Awake and Sing a few seasons back. Seeing as Odets is probably the biggest theatrical influence on Williams outside of Eugene O’Neill, I’m all for it!
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