We know it’s best to stay true to who we are. But we also know that it’s worth fighting a passionate fight to steer the course of who we become. On the thin line between these two truths stands Joe Bonaparte, a promising musician with sensitive hands who finds, in the boxing ring, that he has a knack for the knockout. In one hand, a violin; in the other, a pair of broken-in punching gloves. He’s caught in the gears of early 20th century America: a machine that promises freedom but, for Joe, grinds two bright futures up against each other, until both risk losing their shine.
Joe looks awfully lonely, but in truth he’s one of many. This being a Clifford Odets play, told with tender humanism, we see our own lives right away in the plight of the young boxer. We’re a ways from Joe’s world now – times have changed since New York City in 1934 – but it’s just a different chapter in the same big book: how the youth of America struggles to live up to, and shatter, the hopes of their parents.
The other, more obvious reason that Joe (John Robert Keena) comes off as a public hero is because he’s so often surrounded by an actual crowd: his reluctant father (Tim Lynch), his eager manager (Jim Jorgensen) and his melancholy love interest (Susan Marie Rhea) but also in-laws, parlor guests, and a wide spectrum of roaming citizens. Keegan’s production boasts a cast of 17, quite a few of whom get a few lines in a scene or two and are never seen again. Such allotment works swell in the moving pictures, where bit parts often go as unnoticed as set dressing – needless to say it worked fine in the 1939 film adaptation with William Holden – but for the stage, isn’t some double-casting in order?
It’s true that the script does call for a cast this size. But Odets – although a pioneering theatrical voice – was not a master of his craft. Golden Boy is a lovely parable, but also intermittently disjointed and overwritten, spotted with some uneven exposition and, true to Odets, some sobering vignettes of 1930s social politics that, while eloquent, can distract from the true plot. For a modern audience, over 70 years later, these period pitfalls easily become amplified.
The answer’s not to avoid Odets. It just raises the question: How does one put on a dated play? Is it best to heighten the laws of theatricality, perhaps loosening its ties to detailed realism? Or is the goal to speak to the antique – to foster a world so true to the era that we’re plunged into it without reservation? Does an old play need to come to us, or we to it?
Both are possible answers, but in this Golden Boy the solution is unclear. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner and her team have embraced the relic and polished it to a cleanish luster, and the result is a sturdy, reverent staging that will appeal to fans of the play and lovers of the 1930s. But it’s muddied by stylistic uncertainty. The scenic design, at times, is elegant (for a park setting, who needs more than a bench?) but more often feels laborious, comprised of heavy, rolling walls which slide, revolve, and interlock through the course of many overlong scene changes. When period detail is only possible with the aid of a dozen people ponderously shifting walls in the dark, less may prove to be more.
The trickier issue, though, is a lack of consistency in characterization, for several actors seem not to be doing the same play, even when they’re onstage together. It’s that ‘old play’ question again: When such old-fashioned language risks sounding stilted to today’s audience, is it best to tinker with the intonation and endow it with some millennial self-awareness, or to commit entirely, gosh darn it, to the vocal quirks of yore? Half the cast does it one way, and half the other. For each actor who manages to genuinely translate the emotion within the lines, another can’t rise above playing the period, relying on a hackneyed mannerism or two to keep it all afloat. Some do quite wonderfully, but some are essentially doing impressions of 1930s characters, with a few performances so riddled with playacting that the chance for earnest interaction all but disappears.
The production does have its admirable moments. Lynch and Keena do nice work depicting the growing difficulty with which the traditional father and the rebellious son are able to connect. Keena, while not completely convincing as a pugilist, has the conviction to carry the lead. And Rhea is impressive as the brash Jersey girl who is surprised to find she has a soft side for the little slugger. By the time the tragic ending rolls around, though, the show’s taken on many of the aspects of its protagonist: appealing, ambitious, hardworking, but wedged uncomfortably between the innovative opportunities of the present and the rosy foundations of the past.
Written by Clifford Odets
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Produced by The Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles