The script for Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy reads like the third movie you would see at a Film Forum triple feature, like one of those early, sixty-five minute talkies with bad sound and stock characters. People say things like “Use your noodle,” “cock-eyed gutter rat,” and “phonus bolonus” without a trace of irony, which makes it pretty difficult to take seriously.
Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich) is a talented violinist, but he is also quite a boxer. His father, Mr. Bonaparte (Tony Shalhoub), would prefer he follow his artistic instincts, but surrounded by an exploitative manager, Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a small-time, homosexual hood, Eddie Fuselli (Anthony Crivello), and a selfish promoter, Roxy Gottleib (Ned Eisenberg), he is easily seduced by quick money and fast cars. The love of Moody’s girl, Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski), and the paternal affection of his trainer, Tokio (Danny Burstein), are not enough to save him from a descent into lonely egotism. Punching his way to the top, Joe shouts with the unselfconscious portentousness of a Tony Montana, “Hallelujah! It’s the beginning of the world!”
I somewhat doubt that even in 1937 Golden Boy could have worked. It is clearly a deeply personal work—Odets himself was an immigrant, whose struggle between artistic purity and “selling out” divided him between writing for the stage and for the screen. But the pocket of America he presents is buried under an avalanche of ethnic clichés. Mr. Shalhoub does a fine job with Mr. Bonaparte, bringing some genuine humanity to the role, but-a most of his lines a-wreak of-a lazy, stereotypical a-dialogue. His Jewish friend, Mr. Carp (Jonathan Hadary), is no more clearly written and spends most of his time onstage kvetching like the mothers in stale, old jokes.
There is, admittedly, an antique charm to the production. The costumes by Catherine Zuber (loud suits, large hats) are gorgeous and the diorama-like scenic design by Michael Yeargan presents a New York that is a succession of two-dimensional backgrounds. It is the kind of show that appeals to those who did not grow up in the ‘thirties—or the ‘forties, ‘fifties, ‘sixties, or ‘seventies, for that matter—but who nonetheless feel an odd nostalgia for that decade, perhaps through exposure to the classic Hollywood movies that Odets held in such contempt.
Ultimately, however, charm alone cannot sustain this nearly three-hour play, and its one note gradually begins to sound like nothing at all.