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GOLDEN BOY, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. David Cromer inspires a gangbusters cast to knock the stuffing out of Clifford Odets's 1937 protest play, a cautionary tale about the power of materialism to kill the soul. Young, hungry Italian-American dreamer Joe Bonaparte abandons a career as a violinist for easy money as a prizefighter--and ends up sacrificing a young, hungry African-American dreamer, then himself.

Cromer's period-perfect staging galvanizes Odets's volatile mix of earthy humor and soaring lyricism, but finally grit wins out: Golden Boy was the hardest of the hard-boiled scripts to emerge from the ashcan-kicking Group Theatre. Handsome John Guzzardo as Joe delivers the nonnegotiable greed that defines--and destroys--his character. And Natasha Lowe makes Lorna Moon, the good-time girl who shows Joe a way out, stand for every hard-luck gal pining for a second chance. John Judd as Joe's old-fashioned father gives the play solid moral grounding, and as Joe's booze-hound brother-in-law, Tim Curtis displays the born loser's desperate conniving. Gary Wilmes as Joe's loyal manager handles the tough talk like a trouper, and in the truncated role of sympathetic trainer, A.C. Smith impresses just by looking incorruptible. Playing evildoers, Larry Neumann Jr. almost explodes with menace as a mafioso fixer, and Ray Wild is hideously hilarious as a loudmouth hanger-on.

--Lawrence Bommer

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