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In today’s terminology, you could say that Joe Bonaparte has bipolar gifts. His hands are as adept in the boxing ring, clobbering contenders, as they are playing the violin. His skills are so extreme, in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, they’re on a collision course.

The play’s three acts depict a 12-round championship bout: Mammon versus the Muses. Joe, who practiced for ten years, won a medal as the best young violinist in New York and a scholarship at the prestigious Erickson Institute. His father, of modest means, has encouraged Joe to live humbly and make music, “The great cheer-up language of all countries.” Carp, an aptly named neighbor, asks, “Could the Muses put bread and butter on the table?”

Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Joe wants more. On his 21st birthday, he won’t divorce himself from the violin (“I take a vacation — the notes won’t run away”), but he’ll become a professional boxer and shake “this feeling of no possessions.” Joe’s older brother Frank (the playwright in disguise firing potshots at Mammon) says, “It looks like the gold bug has visited our house.”

In a slim but persistent sense, Joe resembles Hamlet. Hamlet’s father’s ghost demands revenge and that his son “taint not” his mind. Joe, a defensive specialist, must pull punches to save his hands. After a while, goaded by gilded urges, he releases his hands in the boxing ring with “the fury of a lifetime.”

In a more persistent sense, Joe resembles Faust. But instead of selling his soul to the devil, Joe sacrifices his artistic gift for about 18 months of material glitter. To underline the Faust connection, Odets originally subtitled the play “a modern allegory.”

(Joe also prefigures James Dean, a lot, but that’s another story.)

Like Joe, Odets became caught between the artistic and the commercial. After writing three proletarian dramas for the Group Theatre in the mid 1930s — Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, and Paradise Lost — Odets went to Hollywood to write screenplays. He’d earn enough, he vowed, to sponsor his playwriting. Group Theatre heads Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman screamed sellout. In 1937, Odets gave them Golden Boy to raise funds for the impoverished company. They lapped it up, but writing a deliberate moneymaker tore Odets in half.

New Village Arts’ staging gets the style, and much of the sweep, of Golden Boy. As Joe, newcomer Michael Zlotnik has fine moments: his fingers, now clenched, not lilting, are particularly expressive. But he tends to pull his dramatic punches. Two words pop up in the script, it would seem, as often as New York cabs: “gold” and “half.” Like the later Odets, Joe is never whole. He’s half into boxing and half out. In the end, bloated by materialism, he claims to be “half a man, nothing, useless.” Zlotnik’s performance could improve if he played Joe’s halves separately, each with more conviction, and not dilute them by attempting both at once.

Many call Odets’s dialogue the best in American theater. Some even say American literature. In Golden Boy, his words punch: quick jabs, often barrages of questions; combination setups; and Sunday whoppers, as when Joe rejects Lorna with “You’re a historical character to me — dead and buried.”

One could quibble that too many of Odets’s characters speak with the touch of a poet, but his words jump off the page as if they had a running start. Under Joshua Everett Johnson’s direction, the NVA cast sets Odets’s on-your-toes dialogue free. Manny Fernandes, slick hair, shiny forehead (and first-rate), rockets through his lines as Moody, Joe’s harried manager. Eric Poppick’s touching Mr. Bonaparte, Jeff Anthony Miller’s Tokio (the understanding trainer), and Greg Wittman’s humorous Siggie encircle Joe with patter and, ultimately, with confusion and hurt.

Amanda Sitton’s become an actor that actors come to watch. As Joe’s half-on, half-off girlfriend Lorna, Sitton’s shoulders swivel when she walks, and she never just sits in a chair: she has an armada of slouches, all elegant. Sitton’s readings have a pitch-perfect, been-there-done-that tone — as when she utters, in a greener shade of jade, “Marriage is something special…I guess you have to deserve it.”

Kristianne Kurner and Tim Wallace’s set has four playing spaces, including boxers above, punching away behind a scrim. As Eddie, the slick gangster with Mephistophelean impulses, Joshua Everett Johnson slithers around the stage like a prowling reptile. It’s easy for actors to express anger. Johnson does the much more difficult task: like Denzel Washington in Training Day and Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, Johnson makes Eddie always on edge and ever about to erupt.

* * *

FIELD NOTES: When Odets came back from Hollywood with Golden Boy, he promised a young actor, Jules Garfield, the title role. The Group Theatre said no and cast him as Siggie, the comic-relief minor character. As soon as the run ended, Garfield went to Hollywood and changed his first name to John.

The Golden Boy, by Clifford Odets
New Village Arts, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Joshua Everett Johnson; cast: Manny Fernandes, Michael Zlotnik, Pat Moran, Eric Poppick, John DeCarlo, Joshua Everett Johnson, Ryan Hunter Lee, Sassan Saffari, Amanda Sitton, Jeff Anthony Miller, Greg Wittman, Amanda Dane, Eddie Yaroch, Ryan Lahetta, Carlos Darze; scenic design, Kristianne Kurner, Tim Wallace; costumes, Mary Larson; lighting, Nate Parde; sound, Adam Lansky
Playing through July 13; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.

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