Clifford Odets’ Depression-era tragedy (first produced by the historic Group Theatre in 1937 and two years later provided the first film starring role for William Holden) is a flawed classic. Odets creates a menagerie of colorful folk and a passionate outlet for his social philosophies, but this lengthy stage work falls far short in the dramatic continuity department. This Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble production is character-rich, but co-directors Marilyn Fox and Gar Campbell never overcome Odets’ cumbersome structure as the scenes plod along without any clear point of view. The production is further hindered by the unfocused performance of Scott Conte in the lead role of Joe Bonaparte.
The play chronicles young Joe’s struggle to sublimate his soul’s desire to be a violinist in order to feed his hunger for material success in the subhuman world of professional boxing. The difficulty for any actor portraying Odets’ golden boy is the necessity to constantly shift his motivation between these two competing needs while realistically conveying Odets’ unconventional, image-laden dialogue.
Conte certainly looks the part of a second-generation Italian-American who could cut a striking figure in a boxing ring, but his brooding demeanor never believably evolves with the rapidly shifting stimuli Joe must contend with as the young boxer rapidly gains success in the ring while distancing himself further and further from his basic humanity. Conte’s one-level performance doesn’t seem to have had much guidance from the combined efforts of Fox and Campbell.
Complicating Joe’s life is his growing passion for Lorna (Katy Selverstone), the emotionally battered girlfriend of Joe’s fight manager Tom Moody (Steve Vinovich). Selverstone struggles to make Lorna’s almost arbitrary shifts in allegiance between Joe and Tom believable, but convincingly conveys the aura of a weary soul who cannot take one more defeat.
A major plus for this production is in the realization of Odets’ many supporting characters. Vinovich is quite convincing as the small-time fight manager whose dependence on Joe’s success is tempered by his growing hate for the younger man who is taking his woman.
Paul Perri is a tower of moral inflexibility as Joe’s dour father, Mr. Bonaparte. Veteran television and stage actor Orson Bean is hilarious as Bonaparte’s pseudo intellectual neighbor, Mr. Carp. And Jennifer Taub and George Villas as Joe’s sister and brother-in-law, respectively, are perfect as the exuberant slobs who are the only truly happy people in the production.
Also deserving mention are: Sam Vlahos in a chilling portrayal of the murderous fight promoter, Eddie Fuselli; Vince Melocchi as Joe’s loyal trainer, Tokio; Seth Margolies as Joe’s comically intense co-manager, Roxy; and Kevin Quinn, whose quietly detached portrayal of Joe’s union-organizer brother Frank serves as the outlet for Odets’ statement against the subjugation of the working class.
The effective set design of Deena Lynn Mullen and Victoria Profit makes good use of the theater’s sprawling stage space, adequately highlighted by the lighting of Phil Mooers and Peter Stenshoel.
One glaring discord in this production, however, is the out-of-tune prerecorded violin work of Jonathan Rubin. If Rubin’s playing is supposed to demonstrate Joe’s violin virtuosity, then he was destined to be a prize fighter.