Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Stella Adler Theatre
Through July 10
When Clifford Odets wrote Golden Boy in 1937 for the Group Theater, that company’s actors were in his mind’s eye; the roles were suited to them, and the material to their techniques. The play was written for the ensemble.
The very stirring production of Golden Boy, now playing at Stella Adler Theatre, can be taken as a sign that something is going right in the lineage transmission of craft: Adler was a founding member of the Group, and these performers are affiliated with the Stella Adler Academy.
The play’s three-acts make for a long evening, yet I found myself not wanting the show to end.
Golden Boy is the story of the rise of a young boxer, Joe Bonaparte (the excellent Mattia Bartoli). But before he can fight as a serious contender, he must decide to kill something inside himself. This is the story, perhaps, of the pressures that make an American killer.
The living obstacle inside himself is music, and the possibility of a life in music: The kid is a talented violinist and as a fighter he pulls his punches to protect his hands.
Now, some critics have called this set-up preposterous. That’s wrong. An initial, extreme conflict in a young person, yes, but it is fully imagined by Odets and is here performed well by Bartoli.
Bonaparte is angry. The kid is “cock-eyed” (he has a socially painful, slight physical oddity), talented (weird), and Italian (socially fatal in 30s NY). As he says to his manager’s girlfriend, Lorna Moon (the absolutely radiant Denise O’Callaghan), “I’d like music better if it shot bullets.”
The kid is fast and cagey, too. He’s naturally adept in the study of defense, the strategic assessment of the opponent. If only he’d be willing to break his hands . . .
To that end, Bonaparte’s manager, Tom Moody (a very good Jon Boatwright) “pimps” his mistress, Lorna, instructing her to charm Bonaparte toward the prize.
Odets’s virtues as a playwright — primary-color images that stay in the mind and memory; well-constructed rising action; an intimate street-lyricism of complaint, resentment, invective, and yearning — these virtues are beautifully realized by director Rick Peters and the entire, large ensemble.
There is a remarkable struggle between two father figures in their attempt to guide, or possess, Joe: His biological father, Mr. Bonaparte (the extraordinary Joseph D’Agosta), and the menacing manager Eddie Fuseli (the perfect Richard Reich), who trails “a smell of gunsmoke” behind when leaving a room.
And then there is the struggle for possession of Lorna — but, really, that’s the story of her conflict with herself. In a scene between Joe and Lorna on a park-bench, Odets immediately establishes the truth-telling of two damaged people who can recognize in each other what is invisible to the rest. And O’Callaghan and Bartoli are deeply touching here, portraying characters who conceive the hope of saving each other.
But touching hope, in a narrative world like this one, is tantamount to lighting a fuse.
Stella Adler Theatre — Gilbert Stage, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat. 8 pm.; Sun. 7 pm., through July 10. (323) 455-3111, golden.bpt.me . Running time: three hours with an intermission.