Four months after Mike Tyson muscled his way onto a Broadway stage, the bell has rung for another show featuring a boxer. Guess which is better? It's not even close.
A dazzling revival of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" opened Thursday, still packing a punch after 75 years. Tyson could do well to watch how to successfully put together a show about the rise and fall of a boxer.
This Lincoln Center Theater production, directed with verve and spark by Bartlett Sher, is appropriately housed at the Belasco Theater, the same place where it premiered in 1937.
Back then, audiences saw Luther Adler play the doomed boxer Joe Bonaparte and Frances Farmer portray his love interest, Lorna Moon. This season, Seth Numrich dons the gloves admirably and Yvonne Strahovski makes a remarkable Broadway debut as Moon.
The three-act play about a young man torn between his natural talent as a violinist and the fast money and fame of being a boxer sounds like it could be a clunky allegory, but Odets layered in some stunning lines and reduced the sappiness by keeping some of the pivotal scenes off the stage.
Tony Shalhoub is a stand-out as Bonaparte's father, a role whose lines are written in broken Italian-accented English which could be a disaster in the wrong hands ("feela good" and "I giva-a you.") But Shalhoub is so skilled that only a deeply felt character emerges.
Numrich, who starred as the young farm boy Albert Narracott in "War Horse," is a nimble former "shrimp with glasses" here, maintaining his air of insecurity despite a toned physique and a solid left hook. The actor nicely does impetuousness and brashness, but also you can feel his inner tumult at betraying his father.
There are also nice turns by Anthony Crivello as a slithery hood, Danny Burstein as Bonaparte's trainer, and Brad Fleischer as a loopy rival boxer — but Strahovski is a revelation.
An Australian more known for TV roles, Strahovski makes as headturning a Broadway debut as another notable blonde, Nina Arianda in the 2011 revival of Garson Kanin's screwball "Born Yesterday." Strahovski nails the accent, the physicality, the vulnerability and the put down: "What exhaust pipe did he crawl out of?" she asks about the slithery hood.
Great sets by Michael Yeargan that include boxing rings populated by sparring, muscular men and realistic tenement buildings and threadbare offices, costumes by Catherine Zuber that are boxy and masculine while always flattering Strahovski, and dim, moody lighting by Donald Holder all contribute to a gloomy gorgeousness.
Sher has embraced the realism of this dark world — the sweat, gore and rushes of blood to the head. There are passionate kisses but always a lingering threat of violence. The place reeks of leather and failure.
Or, as Odets beautifully summed it up: "This boxing racket is a ghost — it's the city dumps with a buncha scrawny pelicans scratching around for bits of food."
Back on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, where it premiered 75 years ago, Clifford Odets’ boxing saga “Golden Boy” is a knockout, thanks to its 24-karat cast.
The 19 actors in the Lincoln Center revival are so good that you look beyond creaks in the melodrama. So good they make up for lead-footed scene changes and sets that are too postcard-pristine for the tale of tangled desires.
Odets is famous for the socially charged works “Waiting for Lefty” and “Awake and Sing!” He reckoned with his own choices and career to inform “Golden Boy,” which became a William Holden film and a Sammy Davis Jr. musical.
At the story’s core stands Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), a conflicted American dreamer with hands built for beauty and brutality. He’s a gifted violinist, but craves the fame and fortune of boxing. Prizefight pros see Joe’s potential as a cash cow. He’s golden.
But Joe’s Italian immigrant father (a disarming and sweet Tony Shalhoub of “Monk”), speaking in an Old World accent thick as red sauce, struggles to convince his son that art is the better way to shine. Joe can’t resist life as “a gladiator” — a term meant to conjure fights to the death.
It’s a savage arena where Joe meets Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski, of “Dexter”), the mistress of boxing manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Joe and Lorna are bound to connect. But uneasily and, ultimately, tragically.
“South Pacific” Tony winner Bartlett Sher directs this revival. As with his 2006 vision of “Awake and Sing!,” he shows a keen affinity for Odets. There’s a richness and lived-in feeling in every scene — whether it’s at the home of Joe’s noisy, close-knit family or the gym, where you can practically smell the sweat and desperation.
Adding vivid support in these scenes are: Dagmara Domincyzk and Michael Aronov as Joe’s earthy sister and her rowdy cab-driver husband; Jonathan Hadary as a wise friend of Joe’s father; Anthony Crivello as a flashy fight promoter whose interest in Joe extends beyond the ring; Danny Burstein as a menschy boxing trainer, and Brad Fleischer, as a dimwitted fighter who’s taken too many hits to the head.
“Golden Boy” can rise or fall on its two leads. Here, it’s win-win.
Strahovski makes it impossible to take your eyes off her. In an impressive Broadway debut, she’s sexy, vulnerable and completely convincing as a tough cookie with a crumbled past.
And Numrich, who acted opposite equine puppets in “War Horse,” conveys both Joe’s soft and killer sides. He delivers a one-two punch.
Here’s one way you know “Golden Boy” is set in the past: Its hero is torn between idealistic music-making and a lucrative sports career. But instead of micro-managing him to a Nike endorsement, his father pushes for art. How’s that for old-fashioned?
Living with your choice is as tough as making the decision in the first place, and that tension fuels Clifford Odets’ 1937 play, which Lincoln Center Theater’s just revived on Broadway. There’s no easy solution in “Golden Boy,” and the play hurtles forward with the momentum of tragedy.
The young man straddling two worlds is Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), the 18-year-old son of an Italian immigrant (Tony Shalhoub) who sells vegetables from a horse-drawn cart.
Joe’s curse is that he’s a gifted violin player and a canny boxer. His heart is with music, but prizefighting pays the bills, and then some.
The elder Bonaparte spends his savings on a beautiful instrument for his son, explaining that “for me, a violinist is a servant to humanity.” Too late: The son picks door No. 2 and signs up with manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who’s counting on him to escape the bottom-feeding leagues.
Success comes quick and fairly easy, but you can tell Joe isn’t 100 percent sold on his career: He tries to protect his fiddle-playing hands by banking on speed and strategy.
“He’s not a slugger,” observes Moody’s mistress, Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski, of TV’s “Chuck” and “Dexter”). “His main asset is his science.”
Lorna’s as much of a fighter as Joe, and her own main assets are adaptability and quick wit. “Go to hell!” she tells Moody, before adding a seductive, “but come back tonight.”
Lorna speaks in pungent hardboiled-ese, but she also has some of the play’s most lyrical lines. In a terrific Broadway debut, the Australian actress gives the character a deceptively languid manner. Yet behind Lorna’s detached, self-protective pose we see a woman who’s buffeted between romance and practicality.
Too bad we don’t get a similarly insightful performance from Numrich, so touching as the human lead in “War Horse.” He gets the job done, but fails to take full possession of the stage and never graduates from good to great.
Bartlett Sher, who also directed the 2006 revival of Odets’ “Awake and Sing!,” doesn’t always succeed in suggesting the story’s tragic full scope, but his production has many assets. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Donald Holder’s lighting magically summon 50 shades of tough-guy gray, and some of the boxing scenes look like animated versions of George Bellows’ paintings.
The excellent supporting cast also makes the most of Odets’ mix of naturalism and poetry. Shalhoub, in particular, creates a quietly proud rendering of Mr. Bonaparte, a loving, reserved father disappointed by what his son has become. Turns out boxing can do as much damage to your heart as your bones.
Plenty of punches are thrown in the forceful new revival of Clifford Odets’s “Golden Boy” that opened on Thursday night at the Belasco Theater. Eyes are blackened, uppercuts fly back and forth, and by the end of the play, the young boxer hero, Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), is staggering across the stage, delirious and practically bathed in blood.
But the blows that truly stun are the ones we cannot literally see, the jabs to the soul that Joe inflicts on himself, torn as he is between the urge to make it big as a boxer and the desire to be the artist he feels he was meant to be.
Throughout this blistering Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Bartlett Sher and featuring a superb cast of almost 20 actors — a rare feast on Broadway these days — we watch in anguished anticipation as Joe struggles with a defining question.
Do you spend your life trying to shine in a world that values only the mighty dollar and the power it brings, or seek instead to fulfill a humbler, more humane destiny? “Truthful success,” as Joe’s Old World Italian father puts it, remains as elusive a goal today as it did when “Golden Boy” first opened on Broadway at the same theater 75 years ago.
The question was hardly academic for Odets, whose early successes for the Group Theater (“Waiting for Lefty,” “Awake and Sing!”) were marked by a fiery, left-leaning idealism. By the time he wrote “Golden Boy,” Odets had tasted popular acclaim and its honeyed fruits: a lucrative visit to Hollywood and a glamorous marriage to the movie queen Luise Rainer. He found the flavor to his liking.
Although “Golden Boy” charts the story of a young man who must choose between a career as a violinist, for which he has been training since childhood, and boxing, which he has impulsively taken up as a quicker route to the big time, Odets was spilling his own blood onto the page, too. He sometimes disdained the play as being written expressly to achieve a commercial hit — by 1937 the Group Theater’s fortunes were in question — but his discomfort may also have arisen from the knowledge that he was writing a parable of his own conflicted life. In its most powerful scenes the play has a tortured, keening quality that cuts sharply through the sometimes formulaic story line.
Mr. Sher directed a similarly galvanizing production of “Awake and Sing!” for Lincoln Center Theater several years ago. The skills he evinced in that rewarding revival are on view here, too: a knack for making Odets’s vernacular language feel like fresh mint instead of stale corn, and a gift for cutting to the emotional quick of a conventionally structured melodrama.
As the young hero, who is determined to make himself over into the kind of man the world reveres, Mr. Numrich (“War Horse”) moves with an antic grace in the play’s early scenes, bopping around the stage with animal spirits as he seeks to charm the manager Tom Moody (a fine Danny Mastrogiorgio) into giving him a chance in the ring. There is music in the way Mr. Numrich moves that hints at the lyric temperament Joe once felt as a salvation (“With music I’m never alone when I’m alone”), and now feels as an inhibiting burden.
In the play’s most quietly captivating scene, Joe opens his heart to Moody’s girlfriend, Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski), on whom he has quickly developed an overwhelming crush, revealing the sensitivity that has kept him from being true to himself.
“People have hurt my feelings for years,” he says. “I never forget. You can’t get even with people by playing the fiddle. If music shot bullets, I’d like it better — artists and people like that are freaks today. The world moves fast, and they sit around like forgotten dopes.”
But as Joe throws himself into the brutalizing fight world, it is he who seems to be slowing down. Mr. Numrich’s Joe is slowly drained of the buoyant spirits that gave him a captivating glow early in the play. Conflicted and disillusioned, he becomes a machine preserving his energies for the ring, with little spirit left over for living his life.
The process is watched from a distance by his loving father, played with impressive delicacy by a sad-eyed, soft-spoken Tony Shalhoub. Handily surmounting the burden of dialogue written in hokey Italian-American-ese (“I feela good, like-a to have some music. Hey, where’s-a my boy, Joe?”), Mr. Shalhoub infuses his performance with an elegiac tenderness that never descends into the maudlin. The crucial scene in which Joe implores his father to give him his blessing on his new career — and is refused — is played with an unforced emotional rigor that makes it all the more moving.
The icily beautiful Ms. Strahovski, making a striking Broadway debut, brings out the velvety heart beating under Lorna’s cool, hardened-steel exterior. Slinging Lorna’s tart wisecracks with the expertise of a 1930s B-movie star, she also manages to turn her borderline stereotypical character into a rounded human being who is almost as tortured by Joe’s plight as he is.
The rest of the large cast fills out the play’s smoky fight-world ambience impressively, no doubt aided by the atmospheric sets by Michael Yeargan, the sharply cut period duds by Catherine Zuber and the starkly dramatic lighting by Donald Holder, all working at the top of their games.
As the neighborhood philosopher from next door, Jonathan Hadary emits sour bulletins from Schopenhauer with precise, funny inflections. Danny Burstein (“South Pacific,” “Follies”) gives an understated but affecting performance as Joe’s trainer, Tokio, who alone among his cronies understands how fragile their newly minted champion’s self-esteem is: “Your heart ain’t in fighting ... your hate is,” he gently admonishes Joe.
“Golden Boy” is at times dragged down by predictable plot mechanics that obscure the ripped-from-the-gut honesty that glittered more fiercely in earlier Odets plays. Some passages are too bluntly written, tapping out the play’s moral message in telegraphic language that makes you wince.
“Lorna, I see what I did,” Joe cries out in the climactic scene, after a tragic accident in the ring. “I murdered myself, too!”
But even the play’s pulpier excesses (the vaguely homosexual investor Eddie Fuseli, played by an oily Anthony Crivello) are brought home with conviction by the cast. And Mr. Sher effectively spotlights the play’s emotional center in Joe’s agonizing fluctuations between pride and shame, tenderness and rage.
Exulting after his comeback in the play’s climactic fight, Joe crows: “How do you like me, boys? Am I good or am I good?” The last question doesn’t really have the joyous sound of arrogant rhetoric: the poor kid has been searching his soul for the answer since the play began, and he still hasn’t found it.
There's nothing subtle about the story of "Golden Boy," Clifford Odets' drama about a gifted Italian-American kid who gives up his violin for fame and fortune as a prizefighter. There probably was nothing subtle about it when Odets wrote it to be a hit for the Group Theatre in 1937, or when William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the movie two years later. Or when Sammy Davis Jr. did a musical version in 1964.
But subtlety is beside the point at the enormously satisfying anniversary revival at the Belasco Theatre where, 75 years ago, the work's hard-boiled style brought Odets his own uneasy fame and fortune. The point of this Lincoln Center Theater production is the rare opportunity to see a pivotal American period piece staged deeply into the period by Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") with a huge, expert cast that only a nonprofit can afford to showcase with such luxurious dedication today on Broadway.
Seth Numrich (best friend of the horse in "War Horse") plays Joe Bonaparte, the sensitive son whose hunger for big-time American success makes him choose between a life as "a real sparrow or a fake eagle." In almost three hours, we watch the actor transform physically into a convincing fighting machine and, ultimately, to a barely recognizable monster of sharp edges and shadows.
Yvonne Strahovski, a wonderful Australian actress in her Broadway debut, combines the looks of a young Faye Dunaway with layers of sensitivity and mystery as Lorna, initially the mistress of Joe's manager. Tony Shalhoub has massive sweetness and intelligence as Joe's complicated immigrant father and Danny Burstein offers steadying insight as Joe's trainer.
Sher encourages a few actors to lay on the cultural cliches pretty heavily, but, then again, so did Odets. Mostly, the production combines an exhilarating fast-talking swagger with both Odets' real and overwrought lyricism. Designer Michael Yeargan ingeniously switches multiple locations by sliding sets on a runway against gritty windows on a brick wall. Catherine Zuber's costumes understand both self-respecting poverty and the allure of tacky high-style.
When Joe's brother (Lucas Caleb Rooney), the labor organizer, returns with wounds from a demonstration, Odets makes us think about the difference between working just for money and fighting for something better. So does this production.
When Seth Numrich, who stars in the new Broadway revival of Golden Boy (* * * * out of four), last introduced a role on Broadway, he was upstaged by puppets.
What a difference 20 months can make. The young actor who so fetchingly played a lad in love with his stallion in 2011's War Horse has blossomed into a formidable leading man; and Boy, which opened Thursday at the Belasco Theatre, proves an ideal showcase for his burgeoning gifts.
Numrich's riveting performance as Joe Bonaparte -- a violinist who sells his sensitive, artistic soul for a glamorous and lucrative boxing career -- is only one feature that makes this Lincoln Center Theater staging of Clifford Odets' 1937 play a must-see. Director Barlett Sher, who has helmed superb productions of American classics ranging from South Pacific to Joe Turner's Come And Gone, has once again compiled a first-rate cast and captured the excitement and emotional resonance that make such works timeless.
The tale of Joe, an Italian immigrant's son who dreams of a more prosperous and dignified life, seems especially ripe for retelling in our time of diminishing socio-economic optimism. It's easy to see how this naive musician is drawn to the carnivores of capitalism who encircle him: Tom Moody, the manager desperate to resuscitate his sagging career; Roxy Gottlieb, his crass promoter; and Eddie Fuseli, a gangster who wants, and gets, "a piece of that boy."
Numrich nails every aspect of Joe's character: the goofy boyishness and wounded pride that dissolve as his confidence grows, unveiling layers of depth and charm that slicken and harden into something completely alien to his nature. "I enjoy hitting guys now, just to hear them squeal," he confides to Lorna Moon, Moody's mistress, as she and Joe begin to fall for each other in a gorgeously tender, sexy scene. "Something's the matter with me."
By the end of Act Two, Joe's corruption seems complete. There is a harrowing exchange in which, upset by a visit from his father, who wants him to give up fighting, he breaks down before the one colleague who truly cares about him: his trainer, Tokio, played with heartrending authenticity by Danny Burstein. Tokio cradles Joe as he would a small child, then begins encouraging him, and Joe's despair gradually evaporates, replaced by a frenzied vengefulness that's as empowering as it is ugly.
There are a number of such breathtaking moments. Though we don't see Joe in the ring, Sher and fight director B.H. Barry ensure that Numrich and others cast as boxers summon the exhilarating physicality that makes this violent sport seductive for so many.
Those who aren't impressed by such things will surely be moved by the broken look on the face of Tony Shalhoub, cast as Joe's anguished dad; or how Yvonne Strahovski's Lorna struggles to keep her own torment buried behind a cool facade.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a production, even in this season of robust revivals, that packs more visceral punch.
What are the odds of a commercial producer being able to finance the revival of a three-act straight play calling for some 20 thesps decked out in pricey period costumes and performing on a multi-unit set? That sort of reclamation work is generally left to nonprofit theaters, which operate with publicly assisted funding. A half-dozen years after honoring that mandate with his muscular Lincoln Center revival of Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing," Bartlett Sher returns to the helm with a dynamite version of "Golden Boy." It's no act of charity, either, because the show is killer good.
What price fame? That's the big question that Joe Bonaparte (a sensational Seth Numrich) does battle with in Odets' Depression-era morality play about the sensitive son of an Italian immigrant who buys into the American Dream by denying his musical gifts and making a run for fame and fortune as a boxer.
In 1936, when the play opens on New York's Lower East Side, the career options for a kid like Joe are pretty limited. Honest jobs are hard to come by in these hard times, when the only really rich people are gangsters and politicians. Making it in America was especially hard for Joe's dad, the son of a fruit and vegetable man from the old country, a role Tony Shalhoub plays with extraordinary sweetness and deep understanding.
So who could blame Joe for falling for the hype of Tom Moody (a beautiful perf from Danny Mastrogiorgio, who finds surprising nuance in the role), a flashy fight promoter who fast-talks him into putting down his violin and putting on boxing gloves. Moody may be close to broke, but he's got the confidence and the great wardrobe (thanks to costumer Catherine Zuber) of a player.
Joe's decision to go for the gold might also have something to do with the allure of Moody's mistress, Lorna Moon (a tough cookie with a fragile core, in Yvonne Strahovski's lovely perf), who provides a peek at the spoils of success that await a young champ.
Once Joe tosses aside the expensive violin that his father scraped and saved to buy him, and climbs into the ring, the fast crowd moves in. The guy who gets the biggest piece of the young fighter is Eddie Fuseli, a big-time gambler played with an attractive air of menace by Anthony Crivello, who gets to wear some gorgeous suits and topcoats. If it weren't for a few devoted supporters like Joe's trainer, Tokio, a beefy bruiser played with gruff tenderness by the wonderful Danny Burstein, the kid would be eaten alive by the human vultures in the fight game.
Numrich, who broke hearts as the boy in "War Horse," gives an equally sensitive perf as Joe. (His expression of yearning when Joe plays his violin for the last time is electrifying.) Understanding that his character stands for a whole generation of young men who were dazzled by the phoney promises of the American Dream machine, Numrich gives full expression to Joe's blind ambition, but without losing sight of the tragic dimensions of his moral corruption.
Although Odets' writing is as tough and punchy -- and surprisingly graceful -- as Joe's boxing style, there's always the danger that his strongly defined characters would come across as one-dimensional types. But Sher shrewdly encourages his big ensemble cast to take a few risks and explore the more subtle shades of their characters.
Everyone takes the direction, even for a minor character like Mr. Carp, the neighbor who spends hours in philosophical argument with Joe's uneducated but intellectually inquisitive father. Jonathan Hadary's gem of a perf puts a face on a whole generation of European immigrants who came to this country as pioneers.
And that's probably what makes this revival such a moving experience -- the sense that the company took up residence in this difficult period of America's history and saw it through the eyes of their characters.