Bare-Knuckle Boxing: Golden Boy Makes Return Bout, but Gay Teenage Boarding School Musical bare Needs Dressing Down

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With so many second-rate revivals of first-rate plays clogging the marquees, it’s a pleasure to welcome one that succeeds. The fresh new Lincoln Center Theater production of Clifford Odets’s 1937 masterpiece Golden Boy, carefully and robustly staged by Bartlett Sher at the same Broadway theater (the Belasco) where it premiered 75 years ago, is a marvel: perfect sets and costumes that reflect the Depression era from which it came, and a splendid cast of 19 at a time of economic penury when few plays can afford to hire more than two. When Golden Boy opened to rave reviews under the auspices of Lee Strasberg’s Stanislavski method-influenced, politically left-wing Group Theatre, directed by Harold Clurman with a cast that included Luther Adler, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb and a young John Garfield, it skyrocketed the young playwright to instant fame and ran for two years. The movie version from 1939 starred Barbara Stanwyck and introduced a devastatingly handsome 21-year-old unknown named William Holden in the title role. The rest is Hollywood history. The hardworking Odets wrote many films and plays until his death in 1963, even during his troubled years of harassment and interrogation as a victim of the infamous McCarthy Communist witch hunts. But professionally, nothing equaled the attention he got for Golden Boy.

It’s no wonder. Joe Bonaparte, a Brooklyn immigrants’ son torn between his love for the violin and his desire for the money and fame he could earn from a career as a prizefighter, was a reflection of Odets himself. Talented, prolific, conflicted and driven to rise above his own roots in poverty, he turned Joe into his mirror image. The blows he takes in the boxing ring equal the blows to his soul as he grows more ambitious to “be somebody.” (The character later influenced Marlon Brando’s fatal compromise as a worker who “coulda been a contender” in Budd Schulberg’s script for On the Waterfront). Lorna Moon, the girlfriend of the seedy fight promoter who sees an easy buck in Joe, is drafted into convincing him a get-rich life in the ring is the right one to pursue, but falls in love with his innocence and sincerity against her will. As a result, this tough “dame from Newark” watches with horror and guilt as Joe breaks his hands in his championship fight, killing another fighter in the bargain, ruining all prospects of a career as either a pugilist or a musician and breaking his devoted father’s heart. The movie, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, had a brutal fight scene, filmed in Madison Square Garden, that inspired future boxing films, from Champion to Rocky and Raging Bull, and that resonates to this day. Bartlett Sher shrewdly avoids “opening up” the play in this way, leaving the action in the arena to sucker-punch the imagination through every scream and roar of the crowd, but sparing no emotions in the blood that follows Joe back onstage after the title bout. Similarly, Joe’s technique at the violin is demonstrated in the wings, but when you hear the strings and see the swell of tears in his father’s eyes, all you need to know about raw feelings is there. Most importantly, if you’ve never seen Golden Boy anywhere but on the screen, this production eschews the feel-good ending that was added in 1939 to send audiences home happy, and returns to Mr. Odets’s original cynicism. No spoilers, but it works like a scalpel to the heart.

In the current revival, Joe is not as virile, rugged or camera-ready as you might hope, but Seth Numrich (who evoked enough red eyes already as the star of War Horse) has so much range and self-assurance that he moves into the role like cream into coffee. As the duplicitous Lorna, Yvonne Strahovski is no Barbara Stanwyck—who is?—but she supplies just the right amount of been-around weariness to make her transition to “tramp with a heart of honey” believable. Danny Burstein is moving as Joe’s compassionate trainer. Danny Mastrogiorgio is a steady, unwavering heel as the promoter who gives the “golden boy” his first fight. Tony Shalhoub is pitch-perfect as Joe’s long-suffering father, Jonathan Hadary is excellent as the family’s philosophical neighbor who quotes Schopenhauer while he deals cards and Anthony Crivello is properly sinister as the sleazy mobster with mysteriously suspicious homosexual undertones who buys a piece of Joe for his own ruthless self-indulgence. Production values are top-drawer, with Catherine Zuber’s tailored costumes and Michael Yeargan’s sets suggesting park benches, tenements, gyms and austere sports offices with a wall of brownstones as backdrops to mute the noise of the city, all adding ambience to the authentic jazz band arrangements of ’30s hits like “Some of These Days” and “You Took Advantage of Me.”

Every element conspires to transport you to an earlier decade, when the American Dream was simultaneously elusive and in your face. Under less astute direction, the dialogue and action might have seemed dated and melodramatic, but Bartlett Sher’s nuanced direction leaves no corner of the stage in shadow. He gives the play the same inspired guts as his previous staging of Odets’s Awake and Sing! for Lincoln Center Theater a few years ago. Making it real and painful as a wound that won’t heal, he brings home the theme in spades—there’s something about a man who sacrifices everything to honestly and bravely confront his own destiny that resists all boundaries of time and place. This is a Golden Boy to cherish.

 

IT TOOK ALMOST 10 YEARS for a thin little slice of teenage gaydom called bare to get from the University of Southern California to spitting distance of Times Square. Now that I’ve seen it, I can understand why. It is awful.

This is the little show that couldn’t. Spread over a decade of starts and stops, opening nights that closed before the curtain went up, productions that opened across the country but ran out of money, workshops that led to changes from a teenage opera to a book show with constantly reshuffled scripts and songs, and a lot of promises that never materialized, bare appears to live up to its title. Whatever it once was has drowned in a tsunami of confused intentions and microwaved itself into an explosion of burn scars. As Jon Hartmere, who reconstituted the book and lyrics so many times the orange juice turned sour, said in a recent Observer interview about the process of getting this show jump-started: “We literally had no idea what we were doing—none.” On the basis of the triage on view at the New World Stages on West 50th Street, they still don’t. The nonexistent plot spins clumsily around a group of teenagers at a Catholic boarding school named St. Cecilia’s. There’s one nun who directs the school play and one priest who is clueless about the angst of teenage sexuality, but nobody is ever seen attending a class, opening a textbook or tackling a homework assignment. They’re too busy trying to get laid. “This is the age when they feel everything in capital letters,” says Sister Joan. Peter, a sensitive boy, and Jason, an all-American jock, take her seriously and fall in love during rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet. Peter kisses Jason and quotes Peter Pan while Jason shakes with terror that someone might find out. Lost in the pain and confusion of the first pangs of gay love, they sing a pop-rock duet called “Best Kept Secret.” Meanwhile the campus swells with an avalanche of teenage clichés from old Sandra Dee movies. We get the school slut (“You’re so nice—and I wish that mattered more”); the school bitch who is mad at the world because she doesn’t fit in; the school athlete who pretends to like girls as he sings “What If I Told You,” even as his heart lies firmly in another boy’s lap, the girl he misleads (“I think of you the minute we’re apart—since you kissed my broken heart”); the jilted boy who betrays his friends for revenge, and of course Sister Joan, who takes the anguished Peter aside and sings “You’re Not Alone—Not While I’m Here,” a blatant bus-and-truck rip-off of Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd. There’s nothing wrong with this show that a plethora of lawsuits couldn’t straighten out.

Except, perhaps the gay lovers. In desperation, Peter hides in the chapel to pray for clarity and the Virgin Mary appears, still exhausted from that trip to Bethlehem, to do a Vegas lounge act in which she makes jokes like “Jesus once asked me where babies come from and I had to answer quite honestly I didn’t know.” Camping it up in a Cher costume to entertain the troops in the audience, she tries to help (“I may be a virgin but I’ve been to Christopher Street!”), but no one can help. This show is already dead on arrival. In his feeble attempts to act like he’s heterosexual, Jason gets the campus slut pregnant. Tragedy ensues.

Considering our newly evolved view of homosexuality in 2012, it all seems not so much hopeless as hopelessly naïve. The kids Google and tweet, but it all seems to be taking place years ago. Introducing contemporary issues like bullying does not resonate with necessary relevance. The music by Damon Intrabartolo goes nowhere, and Jon Hartmere’s lyrics don’t even try. The cast is mostly indifferent, although their one-note singing is a great deal worse than that. Jason Hite, as the closeted jock, comes closest to sounding like a professional with some potential, but Taylor Trensch, as his tortured lover, sings so out of tune it will set your teeth on edge. Nobody has bothered to invest much emotional commitment in the material, but maybe that’s understandable, with songs that go “I’ve run so fast, I’ve run so far … I wished upon a broken star.” You won’t leave bare whistling a single melody, but trust me. You will leave early.

rreed@observer.com