Clifford Odets is one of those playwrights serious theatergoers regale and theater students study, yet he’s not well known enough today.
The Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Golden Boy” at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, which opened Thursday (Dec. 6), reminds us why Odets is important.
The play talks to a time and place that has mostly disappeared. It’s a time of hard men and harder women, and if the Depression can be romanticized, this would be it. The play itself does not romanticize hardship, but looking at the with eight decades of distance does. Of course that’s more an indication of today, when another recession looks better.
Before I get into the particulars, I have a disclaimer. Years ago I knew one of the leads, Danny Mastrogiorgio (Broadway’s “Wait Until Dark” and TV’ “Blue Bloods”). He’s the younger brother of a former friend, and I first saw him in a college production in the Bay Area. He was good then, and it’s a thrill to see him realize his goal.
Mastrogiorgio plays Moody, an aptly named boxing promoter. He’s barely holding on to his business and his marriage. He’s having an affair with Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski, “Dexter”) whom he loves. She, however, feels obligated to him for lifting her out of the gutter.
“I’m a tramp from Newark,” she says.
There are some wonderful Odets’ lines, including Moody saying, “His gall is gorgeous.” Fans of the “Sweet Smell of Success” will recognize Odets’ line from that screenplay.
The play opens with Moody’s most promising boxer injured, and the guy who hurt him, storms Moody’s office, demanding to be represented. That guy, Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich, Broadway’s “The Merchant of Venice” and TV’s “The Good Wife”) is brazen, pretty much a prerequisite of boxing. He’s also ambivalent, which is what makes him interesting.
Bonaparte is not just a thug with a left hook. He’s a talented violinist, and his father (Tony Shalhoub, Broadway’s “Lend Me a Tenor” and TV’s “Monk”) is so proud of his son. Though a fruit vendor, he saves $1,200 for a violin for his son’s 21st birthday.
It’s the same night Bonaparte has his first professional bout. He wins. Ultimately, though, he loses.
Moody guides Bonaparte, who is torn between his gentle father and the glamorous world of boxing. A mobster — yeah, shocking in boxing — wants a piece of Bonaparte and looms over him.
The play follows Bonaparte wrangling with his two worlds: the cultured, intellectual and embracing world of his father and the boorish, kill-or-be-killed world of boxing. Shalhoub, as the unprepossessing father, is nothing short of brilliant. The look on his face as his son throws away a concert career is heartbreaking.
The 75-year-old play itself is heartbreaking, and why it’s worth seeing.