We are living in a time when new art works should shoot bullets," wrote Clifford Odets in the 1939 introduction to his first collection of plays. For a social-protest playwright like Odets--who'd joined the American Communist Party in 1934--the stage should not only illustrate the economic and political battles of the day but provoke skirmishes in the audience long after the final curtain.
It may be difficult for the contemporary viewer to understand the controversy that Odets's plays caused when his Group Theatre premiered them in 1935, the year that four of the 29-year-old playwright's scripts were produced on Broadway. Today his snappy vernacular can feel as hokey as a film-noir parody, his metaphor-heavy theatrics stagy, and his politics at times nearly simplistic: his first hit, Waiting for Lefty, presents unionization as the cure for nearly all society's ills. But in the 1937 Golden Boy, his strongest play and the Group's greatest success (the struggling company lived off its income for two years), he fashioned a cautionary fable with such humor, compassion, and ferocity that it can still inflict powerful emotional damage.
Odets wrote Golden Boy during a demoralizing stint in Hollywood, where--like many of his fellow Group members--he'd moved, hoping to create a celluloid "folk theater." Instead he discovered that his artistry was coveted to produce marketable, formulaic scripts. Suddenly on the front lines of the battle between art and commerce, Odets reimagined his struggle in a fictional counterpart: skinny, cockeyed, monstrously ambitious amateur boxer Joe Bonaparte, who grew up feeling like a freak because of his immigrant family's poverty, his crooked eyes, and his devotion to the violin. Music, he explains, is his only solace in a world that makes him feel like an outcast. But in our fiercely competitive society, which prizes material success above all else, he foresees nothing but humiliation as a struggling musician. So he bullies his way into the boxing ring, hell-bent on beating his sensitive self into submission and earning a fortune in the process. Joe is the embodiment of the American dream turned against itself.
Odets places Joe between two opposing forces: his long-suffering father, who wants Joe to chase his dreams rather than the almighty dollar, and Tom Moody, the unlucky manager who sees Joe as his last chance to make good. Thrown into the mix is Moody's secretary and mistress, Lorna Moon, a lonely, street-smart "tramp from Newark" who falls for Joe when she realizes they both ache to find a place where they can belong.
Everything in this big three-act play teeters on the brink of formulaic melodrama; it's difficult to imagine a less subtle depiction of the pull between money and art than a boxer who wants to play the violin. But Odets's remarkable if short-lived genius--his muse disappeared shortly after his first collection of plays was published--allowed him to imbue a schematic tale with enormous depth of feeling, turning stock characters into mythic American icons.
It's this mythic sense that director Michael Menendian captures with ingenious subtlety in his Raven Theatre production. He sets the opening scene, in which unknown novice Joe barges into Moody's office to insist on being put in the ring, in a far corner of the enormous stage. Moody's office, looking more like a 1930s Hollywood version of a boxing manager's office than any real environment, is like a vibrant island in the middle of nowhere, its floorboards stopping abruptly before the huge gray expanse of the entire downstage area. An enormous gulf separates this tiny world from the audience, as does Menendian's self-conscious stylization: the performers give pitch-perfect imitations of Depression-era movie acting, effortlessly dishing out rapid-fire wisecracks and snub-nosed slang.
This cinematic feel is enhanced in the transition to the next scene, when Joe confesses his new career path to his family in their tenement apartment. Staged in the opposite far corner of the stage, this scene comes up as instantaneously as a crosscut in a film--lights down on Moody's office, lights up on the Bonaparte flat. Like Moody's office, the living room seems to float in a gray void, allowing even the occasional forced bit of dialogue to resonate like a voice resurrected from an old recording. In essence Menendian makes his audience feel at home with Odets's stylized cadences by stressing their remove from us.
This crosscut transition also creates a critical psychological pressure: things change before anyone's had a chance to breathe. That kind of urgency makes Joe's headlong rush to self-destruction feel credible. If he has a fatal flaw, it's his mad desire for speed: he's desperate to outrun his own humiliating life. Tellingly, he fetishizes the automobiles speeding by on the city streets. "Those cars are poison in my blood," he tells Lorna in the park one evening. "Speed, speed, everything is speed--nobody gets me!"
As the play progresses, Menendian moves his production downstage incrementally while gradually spreading his actors across the entire space. While we're growing accustomed to Odets's language and the cast's stylized acting, the play sneaks up on us and takes over the room. The once distant, mythic world encroaches on our psyches until it's a vibrant present. So by the end of the second act, when Joe has broken his hands in the ring and is cackling gleefully at having destroyed his violinist self--while his father watches in stony silence--this allegorical tale rings with a painful immediacy.
Much of the credit goes to Jeremy Glickstein, whose portrayal of Joe's itchy impatience and bloodthirsty ambition is at times truly harrowing. And Menedian's efficient direction gives Joe nothing but open road on his race to ruin. Glickstein is ably supported by a strong cast, most notably Liz Fletcher as the vulnerable, trash-talking Lorna, Mike Vieau as the blustery putz Moody, and Bill Mages as Joe's unflappable trainer, Tokio. Not everything in this production works--the family scenes never ring as true as the scenes among the boxing professionals. But its deep human truths are resoundingly and sometimes disturbingly present. Menendian knows the play so well that he can stage it simply; there's no "auteur stamp" to detract from the power of Odets's vision. Such directness can make an audience squirm and wince--just the kind of bullet-spewing theater Odets had in mind.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dean LaPrairie.