Somewhere, a barely 21-year-old boy-man from a poor-but-striving urban immigrant family plays classical violin so well he won a scholarship to a conservatory when he was barely out of knee pants -- and, when bow isn’t under his chin, he manages to find time dodge sidewinders there at a local gym where has somehow found enough time to develop the talent potentially to rise to a potential world champ.
If you find this guy, let me know, because the only place where I’ve ever spotted him is in the minds of playwrights and screenwriters who wanted to sock an audience with the "real life" dilemma between struggling in the arts or going for the easy win in the ring. When Odetts wrote, "Golden Boy," he was swimming against a tide of decades of well-wrought parlor dramas and historical panoramas that depicted landed aristocrats and regal queens. A few playwrights, like Elmer Rice, were using the jargon and the toughs of New York’s streets to create slice-of-life dramas, most playwrights of the 1930s stuck with the high-brow seeming pageants in which posh-sounding actors with last names like Barrymore and Lunt could declaim on the woes of the wealthy, the aristocratic and the pampered learned class. Even Eugene O’Neill, after some early grasps of the burgeoning "new theater," reverted to having his drug addicts, lushes, life failures and ne’er do wells express the hope and (more usually) despair of their lives in flowery rhetoric incongruous with the characters’ background and learning.
So when Clifford Odetts, a politically committed writer who saw the working classes as the true embodiments of true emotions, wrote a three-act tragedy played out in seedy offices, crowded tenement apartments and brutal boxing rings, it had the ring not only of truth, but of truths welling up from the overcrowded tenements, seedy hotels and dust-caked offices of the urban under class.
The central conceit that Joe Bonaparte (Odets obviously liked to play around with the theater shibboleth that "the nomen is the omen" -- a character’s name holds the key to his fate) stumbles into the world of pro boxing after he offers to substitute for guy whose hand he just broke at the gym already gives a pretty good indication that a lot of the drama here is borrowed from Hollywood -- specifically from Warner Bros., in this case "42nd Street."
Maybe you don’t actually hear his manager (played with verve but an undisciplined accent by Danny Mastrogiorgio)) say, "You’re may be going into that ring just another fighter, but you’ve got to walk out of there a champ." But we know from the moment that Bonaporte (played by Seth Numrich) comes buzzing in into the office, like L’il Abner’s Evil Eye Fleagle, he’s all nerves, cocky self-confidence and plenty of what they used to call moxie.
Numrich does great -- amazingly well -- in his boxing scenes. But even so, he was a lot more believable with bow under his chin than an opponent’s right hook. When he plaintively asks "What about girls" when he’d told he’s going into serious training, the line is delivered as a throwaway, although this must be as close to a life-and-death an issue a young, good-looking, athletic 21-year-old has ever faced.
As his girlfriend, the well-worn Lorna, Yvonne Strahovski initially comes across as an incarnation of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl. But although she may seem (as with too many of the many, many cast members) to have studied at the "Laverne & Shirley" School for Accents, she becomes more believable in the later acts, when she’s forced to develop a moral compass more nuanced than the self-dismissive "I’m just a tramp from Newark." (I’ve never seen the film version -- done by Warner Bros., of course. But I’ll just bet that when Barbara Stanwyck says it, you believe it.)
For theater aficionados, this full-on, lushly mounted revival of Golden Boy will be a great chance to encounter one of the legends of 1930s Broadway in the flesh. I admit that I kept hearing echoes of all of those melodramas Warner Bros. was churning out by bushelful -- including a direct rip-off of "Golden Boy," where a medical student turns to prize fighting so his kid brother can become a classical pianist ("City for Conquest").