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, 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.