PLAY: GOLDEN BOY by CLIFFORD ODETS (1937)
Performed by 3rd year students of Juilliard School
Place: Harold and Mimi Steinberg Drama Studio
Date: October 28, 2010
Clifford Odets was as American playwright who wrote socially-conscious plays in the late 30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. He wrote the plays “Awake and Sing”, “Waiting for Lefty” and the pugilistic drama “Golden Boy”. An avowed socialist, he succumbed to the lures of Hollywood and subsequently ratted on some of his socialist colleagues during the McCarthy witch-hunts. He fell out of fashion in the late ‘40’s and 50’s. He died in 1964. His plays are considered classics of American dramatic literature.
As luck would have it, the Juilliard dramatic department was staging Odets’ “Golden Boy” roughly 45 minutes after the chamber music recital finished at Paul recital Hall on the mezzanine of Juilliard School (more on this later). I went up to the 3rd floor and was waitlisted at #22, but I managed to get into the theater where the play was going to be performed..
I had no preconception of what I was going to see. Back in my college days I had a read a bit of Clifford Odets but I had never seen a play of his staged in Manila. I felt very much like exploring unknown territory as I took my (free) seat in the theater expressly designed for the student actors of Juilliard. This was a theater in the round, mostly just one line deep for the audience, so seats were extremely limited. All the action was on a square raised platform viewable from every side. There was no scenery, just a table and a few chairs that were configured according to the scenes. In this regard, the play indeed was the thing. And did I mention it was free?
The play had a somewhat incredible storyline. An Italian-American guy named Joe Bonaparte with a talent for playing the violin decides to become a boxer, against the wishes of his father (talk about reverse ambitions!) We get to hear him play the violin offstage just once..a surreal piece of stage business and bittersweet as well.He proceeds to get himself booked for fights by a reluctant and skeptical manager, wins fights through defensive maneuverings that protected his hands (to assuage his father’s concerns), becomes cocky and arrogant, falls in love with his manager’s girlfriend, and in a gesture of defiance at his father, deliberately breaks his hands in a brutal fight, thus ruining them forever for violin-playing, elopes with the girlfriend and dies in a crash while driving his Duisenberg (the “it” car I suppose of those bygone years).
For a boxing play, “Golden Boy” uses tough, but somewhat polite, even romantic, language. That’s hardly the kind of talk you hear from real boxers (think Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather). But this play was set in the 30’s, so swear-words were a no-no. I did notice an undercurrent of misogyny in the play. I wonder if Clifford Odets hated women because he sure made out Joe’s love-object here to be a verbal punching-bag, a two-timer, and eventually tragic quasi-heroine. The zeitgeist of the 40’s America of course took a lot of things for granted, such as the second class stature of women and the inferiority of blacks. Judged against this background, “Golden Boy” was understandable, a logical product of its age.
The play was in three acts. This is unheard of in today’s Broadway, where the attention spans of modern theater-goers do not extend beyond two acts. Still, at the end of the play, when we learn of Joe’s death together with his girlfriend in a car crash, I realized that I had just seen a great play.
This was thanks in no small measure to the terrific “student” cast of this production. “Student” is a misnomer in this case, because I found the performances of the actors to be of a stunningly high caliber, at par with those I’ve seen on many repertory companies, and indeed, on Broadway. The only giveaway that this wasn’t really Broadway was the youthfulness and general prettiness of the twentysomething actors who played everyone from an old father to a loudmouthed manager to other characters of the rough world of boxing. Also, this casting of an originally all-white play was colorblind. You had black actors playing Italian and Anglo managers and hangers-on. The dialogue wasn’t rewritten to reflect the casting. It is to the credit of the actors that the color of their respective skins in no way detracted from the unfolding of the dramatic story of the rise and fall of a violinist/boxer. In the end, the message that Odets managed to convey through this play (perhaps a mea culpa of sorts for his success as a playwright, socialist that he was), was that when an individual turns away from idealism (playing the violin, with its doubtful economics) to crass commercialism (boxing with its monetary rewards but brutalization of the spirit), he destroys himself and those around him eventually. Sounds familiar?
Outstanding in the role of Joe “Golden Boy”’ Bonaparte was Michael Curran-Dorsano, who looked like a young Paul Newman. Only problem was, he didn’t really look like a boxer, physique-wise. I guess it would be too much to ask that a Juilliard actor have the body of Manny Pacquiao LOL. Ismenia Mendes as Lorna, the conflicted girlfriend, looked like a slimmed down Christina Hendricks of Mad Men, with the same archy attitude, period skirt and all. Sekou Laidlow (who is black) playing the manager had the brash and loud attitude down pat. Every actor in this 17-member cast (a number that would bankrupt a straight Broadway play), one year short of graduation in Juilliard, performed in a way that you knew they were already deep within effective, functioning theatrical personalities, fearless and un-shy. I see a bright future for them in the theater and movies. After all, Kevin Kline and Patti Lupone, among others, graduated from Juilliard. A couple of years from now, I will take great pleasure in remembering that a suddenly hot Hollywood actor used to be in a play by Clifford Odets at Juilliard, one cool evening in October,2010, and I was there in the audience, marveling at his performance. I know this will happen because years ago, I saw John Malkovich and Kevin Spacey in plays on and off Broadway when they were relatively unknown. Look where they are now. I’ll keep the (free) souvenir program just in case.