Clifford Odets’ great drama (1937) is staged so rarely, it could qualify as a Lost Classic. As in all of Odets’ work, when it becomes “found,” the story of the rise and fall of a man with star-crossed gifts still packs a whallop.
Joe Bonaparte’s hands are a boon and a curse. He could become a master violinist. With music, he says, “I’m never alone when I’m alone.” Music makes him feel he’s “a man. I belong here.” But artists “are freaks today,” and others bully him when they see his violin case. In the midst of the Depression, Joe’s father buys him a $1200 violin. But Joe rejects the gift because it can’t slay his enemies. He’ll make his name, and big money, as a prize-fighter. But lose all feeling in his hands.
The play cleaves Joe in two and clobbers his decision — with success.
Like Joe, almost everyone in Golden Boy is only half of what they could be. Joe falls for Lorna, says she’s “half-dead.” But the disillusioned “tramp from New Jersey” can’t choose between Joe and his manager, Tom Moody. Tom’s half in/half out of a marriage. “It’s the Twentieth Century,” Lorna tells him: “no more miracles.”
According to Odets, a “miracle,” even bigger than the American Dream, would be a whole person.
In an interview, he said his plays are about “the fulfillment of each individual human being – about what develops all the inherent possibilities of each man and woman and what holds them back, what stymies them.”
In effect, Joe was on his rightful path but got re-routed. So was Lorna, so was Tom. Only Joe’s patient father stayed the course. But the play’s most complete person may suffer most in the end.
Golden Boy has a few purple flourishes, and the scenes creak a little by today’s flash-cut standards (it’s easy to forget that people went to the theater in those days for a full evening without having to be up to the minute about trivia).
Directed by Emilie Whelan, the UCSD production honors the piece with a big, sweeping, inventive production. It’s in the round at the Potiker Theatre. The audience sits in bleachers on all four sides. Eight bollards, linked by thick ropes on a raised wooden platform, and hanging lamps, with drooping metal shades, make the stage resemble a boxing ring for every scene.
Because it is. Tom threatens to punch Lorna in the nose. Even Mr. Bonaparte tells his son-in-law to “hit your wife in private.” There’s verbal violence throughout. And music: violin solos, including the jazz standard “Caravan,” and Hannah Corrigan belting out torchy riffs fill in the play’s absent half.
The talented cast obviously relishes the hard-boiled style and staccato dialogue. The script suggests Italian stereotypes. But no one plays them. Though the actors shuffle around too much for the in-the-round configuration (and could play the diagonals more), each makes clear, specific choices.
Standouts: Luis Vega’s Joe Bonaparte, raw, trim, and hurting; Michael Turner’s manic Tom Moody has a violin in him that he may never find; and Hannah Tamminen’s forlorn Lorna Moon, fatality’s poster child.