Golden Boy By Clifford Odets Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Keegan Theatre at the Church Street Theater to Dec. 19 A boxing drama that doesn't quite, um, pack a punch

On the Ropes: Golden Boy’s Joe, left, gives up violin strings for boxing gloves.

Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy was the agitating playwright’s first Broadway hit, in 1937; two years later, its film adaptation marked the screen debut of William Holden, whose four-decade film career stands tall against any actors in his generation. A drama as melo- as they come, Golden Boy found Odets shifting away from the political cargo of his earlier, influential Waiting for Lefty to spin a more personal tale depicting the clash between integrity and material reward. He embodied this polarity in the unlikely character of Joe Bonaparte, a 21-year-old kid with the talent to become a violinist of note, but who chooses instead to chase a payday as a prizefighter, a profession that carries risks far graver than the one Odets is mainly interested in: that Bonaparte might break his hands on some palooka’s mug and sacrifice his future as a musician. His choice breaks the heart of his decent, peace-loving papa, the sort of man who’d cheerfully spend $1,200 in Depression-era dollars to get-a his bambino a really nice-a violin-a. (Critics have written of the musicality of Odets’ dialogue. I can affirm that Signor Bonaparte Senior’s accent is right there in the script.) It’s a schematic premise from the jump—Odets would soon leave New York’s progressive Group Theater to write screenplays in Hollywood—but the show’s favorable reception at the time suggests at least some of the people able to attend Broadway shows during the Great Depression agonized that just maybe their better-than-comfortable living came from the less civilized of the two prodigious talents with which there were blessed. Wait, what? OK, truth: This is a bantamweight drama from a heavyweight dramatist, and it’s hard to figure how it could have seemed any less redonkulous in 1937 than it does now. The best that can be said for Lee Mikeska Gardner’s earnest, hardworking production for the Keegan Theatre is that it’s no clunkier than the play itself. That the chops to be a contender in both sweet science and the symphony could manifest in the same body ought to be something we can accept as mere setup. Unfortunately, the casting only underscores its implausibility: As Joe, John Robert Keena is called upon to shadowbox only a little and to fiddle even less. The most charitable way of assessing his prowess at either endeavor would be to say they make his acting seem credible by comparison. There’s no detectable chemistry between him and Susan Marie Rhea’s wistful Lorna Moon, the sad-eyed Jersey girl who forms the third side of a love triangle with Joe and his philandering, desperate manager (Jim Jorgensen); Joe falls for her apparently because he’s never met another girl in his life. There are compelling characters and performances here, like Bradley Smith’s tightly wound Siggie (Joe’s drunkard, cab-driving brother-in-law), Chuck Young’s steady boxing trainer Tokio, and Mick Tinder as the mobster Eddie Fuseli—a role originated by an ambitious young actor named Elia Kazan. But they’re all stuffed into the margins of George Lucas’ handsome period set, and the show’s tragic denouement manages to feel both so arbitrary and so clumsily foreshadowed as to be laughable. Some members of the cast have a surer grasp on the florid, anachronistic style of Odets’ dialogue than others, but it’s Jorgensen—quite solid in his part, for all the good it does—who gets to utter the salient phrase: phonus balonus.

Our Readers Say

Can't disagree with this (rather nasty, it seems to me) review more: I loved the production when I saw it opening weekend, as did every member in my party. Wonderful actors present a compelling story in a classic, well-crafted style that isn't seen enough today. We were reminded of how powerful and moving this kind of storytelling can be. A great night of the theater. And we obviously weren't alone. Another perspective in today's POST - this critic loved the show as much as we did:
Theatergoers should check the show out for yourselves.
The City Paper critics have clear preferences in terms of the type of theater they like and want to see -- And it sure the heck isn't "Golden Boy" by Clifford Odets. I saw this Keegan Theatre show last weekend -- and I agree with the Post critic that it is a superb take on a great classic. Having read the City Paper for years, I could have predicted that "Golden Boy" didn't stand a chance of a good review from this paper. A quick glance at the shows reviewed during the last year by this paper (and this critic in particular) reveal a clear pattern. See this show if you like traditional/classic structure and character development, poetic language, straightforward, gimmick-free acting. If you don't, don't -- there's something for everyone in this great town and you can always check out one of the companies doing work that this critic clearly prefers. But don't believe his opinion of this production. See it for yourself would be my suggestion -- we were sure glad we did and found it immensely rewarding.
One more thing that bears mentioning: I truly cannot believe that anyone could watch this show and NOT understand why Joe falls for Lorna ... both because of the script, and the actors involved in the triangle. Wow!
This review just shows the critic doesnt know what he is talking about. John Kenna plays the violin and is trained in martial arts.

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