Perhaps anticipating the upcoming areawide symposium on nontraditional casting, Source Theatre has mounted a revival of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy" with a crucial color change. Adapted and directed by Dorothy Neumann, the show at the Warehouse Rep is in fighting trim.
Playwright Odets' reputation for lefty social protest caused his periodic rejection by Broadway, and his cinematically structured 1937 "Golden Boy" demonstrates that his Hollywood sojourns clearly influenced his later stage work. The play is a three-act prole-opera about Joe Bonaparte, an Italian American kid who decides that the fastest way out of the slums is with his fists. When Joe chooses a dubious, if lucrative, career as a prizefighter over a career as a violinist, he alienates his immigrant father and finds himself in the shady company of Tom Moody, his weak, washed-up manager; Lorna Moon, Moody's moll; and Eddie Fuselli, a mob figure who takes more than a passing interest in the young boxer.
Odets orchestrates a lean, punchy story, and his language rings with vigor. He's sympathetic to these sleazy, troubled characters, and he creates relationships that are natural, vivid and full of humor as well as pain.
In director Neumann's adaptation, Joe Bonaparte and his family are black, a transformation that certainly makes a modern sort of sense because blacks have supplanted the poor whites who were the boxing stars of the '30s. The color change is not without precedent: "Golden Boy" was the basis for a 1964 musical starring Sammy Davis Jr. (whose character was rechristened Joe Wellington).
Neumann manages an admirably understated production, and gets away with nearly everything, even palooka-palaver like "Don't Brisbane me, Lorna, I'm licked" -- lines that by rights should sound out of place coming from anywhere but the small screen in black and white. She mines the intimacy and poignancy of scenes like Lorna's and Joe's park bench te~te-a`-te~tes, and maintains a firm hand over the proceedings until the melodramatic final scene. Tim Goecke's spartan set does away with distracting period clutter in favor of an all-but-bare stage, using a back wall with panels that flip noiselessly to suggest an office, a home and a gymnasium.
Clayton LeBouef gives a moody, mercurial performance as Joe Bonaparte. He knows that the boxer is in the ring to take his revenge on the world, and graduates with fine control from the rookie's sweet vulnerability to the champ's bitter arrogance. Barbara Klein is delightful as gum-cracking, hard-eyed Lorna Moon, snapping off lines like "I'm just a tramp from Newark" with a Minnelli-ish mix of moxie and confusion. As the dandyish mobster Eddie Fuselli, Jack Mayo cribs entertaining chunks from the Robert De Niro primer. James Knight gives Joe's father a sober dignity, and as Joe's ambitious brother-in-law Siggie, Victor Steele delivers his lines with a funny and flippant spin.
by Clifford Odets. Directed by Dorothy Neumann; settings, Tim Goecke; lighting, Michael Matthews; sound, David Crandall; costumes, Annie Milton. With Tim Caggiano, Clarence Chamberlain, Barbara Klein, James Knight, Clayton LeBouef, Richard Mancini, Jack Mayo and Victor Steele. At the Source Theatre Warehouse Rep through Dec. 5.