By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Lakewood Theatre Company packs punches with its production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, but not the kind you expect. Boxing as the American sport has gone by the wayside since Mike Tyson started biting ears, but once it was the golden sport, responsible for a huge number of radio sales: Families crowded around the old wooden box to see if their hero and their bets were coming through.
That’s the time and atmosphere of Golden Boy, which premiered at The Group Theatre in 1937. Ty Boice stars as Joe Bonaparte, an Italian immigrant’s son who wants to escape the shame and struggle of poverty and make a name and a man of himself. Boice, the founding artistic director of Post5 in Portland and now associate artistic director of Island Stage Left in Friday Harbor, Washington, remains a darling of the Portland stage, and for good reason. He puts on the gloves and doesn’t hit below the belt in Golden Boy. With his natural shock of blond hair he’s a sensitive, but driven, hero, with a keen awareness of Bonaparte’s mixed-up inner world beneath his strong-man facade. Boice gives Bonaparte a slight stutter in Act 1; his hands move jaggedly, and he hangs his head in a slight nod. He’s an innocent boy, subconsciously aware he’s making the choice to bite some apples and lose the comfort of childhood. The inner lion of Boice’s Bonaparte is rehearsing for the moments he comes into his own.
Gary Powell, who played the stand-in for Noel Coward in Lakewood’s recent Present Laughter, delivers a masculine tour de force as Joe’s father, this time without the trappings of crystal decanters and silk robes: he is the interior strength and moral center of Joe’s world. A pushcart fruit salesman, he has set out to make a better life in the New World for his family – not one of a bigger and better house and car, but of the heart and mind. He and Boice together create a powerful dynamic onstage.
Odets, the playwright, grew up in the Bronx as the son of Jewish immigrants, and Golden Boy is something of a many-layered, fictionalized memoir. His father was a go-getter who aimed to make it big in the U.S. of A. Odets was a roommate and close friend of director Elia Kazan, and a vital member of the radical theater scene of the 1930s. He came of artistic age in a perfect swirl: the great Yiddish theater and journalism of New York City; the politicking of FDR that created the WPA and its art and performance projects; The Group Theater, led by Lee Strasberg, which forged new avenues in acting by careful and thorough self-reflection, popularly known as “method acting.”
America’s involvement in World War II created a dramatic reversal of fortunes, not just a postwar Levittown for the men in grey flannel suits, but a rethinking of our core cultural values. Realism in the arts gave way to a modernism that landed Jackson Pollock on the cover of Time magazine, and Stockhausen performing quartets in helicopters. Odets was in the middle of it all. Eventually, as the tides turned and Sen. Joe McCarthy ran his anti-Communism witch trials, Odets was called to testify with his friend Kazan. Odets had always felt as if he was homeless: his distant and childlike mother was never emotionally present, and his father was always pressing Odets to climb the ladder of success. Odets, like many writers, spent most of his life cloistered, typing away at his machine (nicknamed “Ambition Corona”) but wanting to belong to the larger presence of community. His acceptance into The Group Theater with Kazan was the most fruitful period of his work, but not necessarily its pinnacle.
At the outset of Odets’s centennial year in 2006, The New Yorker’s theater critic, John Lahr, helped foster a review of his oeuvre. For many years playwrights, actors, critics and theatergoers had made an effort to bury Odets back in the canon. His writing was often seen as period-piece stuff tied to the lefty politics of which he wrote, but never had official long-term ties with. He was called a sellout who went to die a lonely script-doctor death in Hollywood. But any person who could write the first draft of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and be called in to help with Hitchcock’s Notorious, is a writer far from the last days of his game. It was the conjunctions that Odets seamed together and made sing off the page that made his mark as an author. He took his life experience at home, the inner-city street language and intellectual tensions of his time, and drew out real characters with poetic voices that told it like it was. He was, as he was sometimes called, “the poet of the proletariat.”
Golden Boy is an honest assessment of Odets life while belonging to The Group Theater. He had spent a number of years getting bit parts as an actor, and finally turned to writing. Strasberg hated his work, but it ended up providing some of the group’s most successful performances, and according to some who were on the scene, creating some of the 20th century’s most exciting opening nights. Odets truly became the Golden Boy, The revolution’s Number 1, according to Time magazine. The Group Theater was doing important work, but still needed a paycheck. Odets provided it. His huge hit Waiting for Lefty, which mirrored a 1935 cab strike so realistically that literary theorists believe he must have attended the union meetings, pushed The Group Theater into a new space creatively and by reputation. Odets created a legacy by giving voice and eloquence to the day-to-day monotony between the triumphs and falls of American culture.
In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte has a past that he’s reluctant to tell anyone about: he’s a violin prodigy. By entering the ring, he risks not only breaking his “mitts,” but also making a break psychologically from who he really is as an intellectual and artist. Can he give up the long puzzle-pieces of making musical connections and drawing out major from minor for the equal strategy of the boxing ring? Both are chess games, but in one there’s losing – not just losing a fight, but also crossing over from creation to destruction. In the audience, we are seeing a sweet boy become hard and cynical.
Odets, once the one-line player at the Group Theater, never left the boxing ring between himself and his work. He was a Renaissance man: art historian and collector, painter and writer. He was wealthy, but writing about his roots in poverty. He was successful on Broadway, but went to Hollywood. No matter where he went, it seemed, he couldn’t live up to or please anyone enough. Golden Boy is precisely about that: giving up one heartfelt talent and skill for another, and facing the uncertain outcome. Here’s where the real punches come in, the ones that bruise the heart.
Lakewood’s Golden Boy gives us the smoke and mirrors of a good play. A stained-glass triptych forms the focus of the stage, providing a vantage point from different angles of the city and Joe’s life. The backlighting brings us from a park, to a one-bedroom apartment, a boxing ring, and back to an office.
Once Joe has left his four-stringed violin past, a set of vultures lies in wait. Mr. Moody, his manager (and Odets’s stand-in for his own father), makes Joe out to be a piece of meat, good for a profit and little more. Played suitably rough-on-the-inside by Jason Maniccia, Moody’s got a feeling for Joe, but the constant harassment of his messy personal life, with a soon-to-be-ex and a mistress, leave him numb. He’s out to make a buck on Joe, and Maniccia’s strong-man persona is a good foil to Boice’s early tentativeness. Mr. Moody’s girl, Lorna Moon, is an opportunist from the outside, but much like Joe, she’s waiting to melt on the inside. Tabitha Trosen plays her with the right angle, giving us the necessary degrees between survival and self-confidence. She’s curved, she’s got the acid tongue, and unlike most, but just like Joe, she sees what is for what. When they finally kiss, there’s that chemistry of like-meets-like. The strong woman meets the strong man, but at the worst of times.
Odets wrote scripts that called for few or no minor characters, and in the case of Golden Boy called for 17 players. Lakewood has consolidated some of the roles. A little bit is missing in the resulting dynamics of social strife and sexual mores, but with less than half the original characters, the cast still manages to get the feeling and complexity of Golden Boy across to the audience with awe and understanding.
Siggie, played by longtime Post5 actor Stan Brown, is Joe’s brother, a drunken taxi-cab driver and diplomat between fame and fortune. Joe’s father, his manager, the self-made man Fuseli, Lorna Moon, and even Joe’s dead mother all want a piece of Joe, want him to be something. They don’t know what, and yet they all believe they know the way and how Joe will be free. It’s as real as the mean streets: eventually everyone sees a hitch to ride upon with Joe the boxer, as it was with Odets, the cash cow for The Group Theater. Golden, ready or not.