Premiered in 1937, the play was personal: Clifford Odets had just gone to Hollywood to make money to bring back to New York to fund the barely solvent Group Theatre—the pioneers of American Method acting. In Bonaparte, we see the incompatible desires to make art and make money, but it goes deeper than that: the choice is between whether to create or destroy, to be an artistic freak or to conform to the social norm—to violence. And because boxing is business, turning people into objects, it becomes a metaphor for capitalism, a system founded upon such violence. Driven by the shame of poverty—it's set during the tail-end of the Depression—Joey chooses pugilism, fashioning a world of immodesty, of arrogance, shoving, shouting, jealousy and unhappiness, which together suffocate the humility and sensitivity that previously defined him. It's an environment in which not only is there no place for art, but art couldn't even exist. Odets asks, could we make anything beautiful in a world so mean?
The play suggests no, as its tragedies build consistently, but Golden Boy refutes its own philosophy by being so fucking beautiful, from its hard-boiled dialogue ("Go to hell! But come back tonight") to its finely wrought drama; Odets may have a lot of big ideas, but his characters aren't symbols—they're deeply realized people. This is drama first, populated by 20th-century Italians and Jews, set amid the humble conditions of the melting pot in a New York that had lost its gildedness. These are down-on-their-luck heroes: washed-up managers, aging immigrants, worked-to-death cabdrivers, restless youths, each trying so damn hard to be happy. They're brought to life vividly by a roundly excellent cast.
In his Broadway debut, Michael Aronov steals scenes as Joey's brother-in-law Siggie, a hothead in his undershirt—the sort of role John Turturro played as a younger man. Tony Shaloub, as Joey's father, a thickly accented Italian (a role that can easily descend into caricature), brings heartbreaking, heartbroken shaming to his every scene just through the sad look in his eyes, the slouch in his shoulders, the disapproval he expresses so lovingly. But the star is Seth Numrich, who originated the role of the young man in the Broadway production of War Horse. He takes Joey from sweet kid to blood-soaked madman in less than three hours, his finest moment coming at the climax of Act II, in which in one locker-room scene he goes without dialog from holding back tears to crumpling up in sobs and wails, then pulling himself together before amping himself up for a fight. I'm getting chills just typing about it: I've never been so aware of being in the presence of greatness, of the sort of thing the people who saw it will be talking about until the day they die.
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Golden Boy: A History