12/07/2012 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

First Nighter: Clifford Odets's Golden Boy Just About Makes Weight

There's so much to say -- some very good, some good, some not so good -- about Clifford Odets's revived Golden Boy that a hyped-up reviewer doesn't know where to begin. Maybe a worthy starting point is the Belasco Theatre where the memorable work is playing and where it opened originally just about a month over 75 years ago -- and where two years earlier the Group Theatre bowed Odets's Awake and Sing, making the house a launching-pad for the landscape-changing company.

Seeing Golden Boy now from a seat where it was seen then has the effect of looking through a magic telescope and watching not just the current cast but the first players, among them Luther Adler as title figure Joe Bonaparte and fellow (not in the Communist-sympathizer sense) Group members Jules Garfield (soon to be John), Howard da Silva, Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Morris Carnovsky, Martin Ritt and Robert Lewis as well as Frances Farmer with whom Odets was cheating on two-time Oscar-winning wife Luise Rainer.

(FYI: in the Garfield toplined 1952 revival, not at the Belasco, Farmer's role as Lorna Moon was played by Bette Grayson, who was Odets's second wife and another of his actress crushes that included King Kong obsession Fay Wray.)

But, of course, what's patently on view is Bartlett Sher's heavyweight-bout Lincoln Center production. (His 2006 Awake and Sing settled in the same venue.) The story -- for those not yet in the know -- follows young Joe (Seth Numrich, recently the innocent Warhorse hero and in fighting form here) who's got the makings of a concert violinist but also the power in his bantam-weight fists to become a champion.

Joe opts for the latter path against the wishes of his kindly father (Tony Shalhoub, transforming himself, as usual) but cheered on by manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), mean though effete backer Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello), trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein) and with the on-again-off-again amorous attentions of Moody's fiancee Moon (Yvonne Strahovski, who isn't involved with Odets but maybe only because the womanizing playwright died in 1963.

Nay-saying father Bonaparte knew what he was talking down, since Golden Boy with its -member cast grittily illustrates -- as Michael Yeargan's evocative 1930s set pieces float in and out and include a gym that might have sprung from a George Bellows painting -- how Joe evolves from the musical prodigy he might have been into a self-involved bully and ultimately literal killer in the ring.

There's plenty to be said in favor of Sher's version, particularly the pulp-fiction pace at which it's staged. The game's-on director keeps the heightened realism of a 1930s Warner Brother flick going from the second it begins in Moody's chaotic office where the manager is running into trouble attempting to set up a bout and does so when Joe enters ablaze with ambition. Sher only accelerates straight through to the end when corruption has bloomed like a blood rose.

Yet, there's an unmistakable hole at the center of a play where a tragic choice is made between art (the violin) and money (boxing purses). This, despite the undeniably dramatic pull of Joe's descent even as he pursues a rollercoaster romance with arm-akimbo Lorna -- and even as Moody regularly charges in and out, Fuseli looms menacingly and the elder Bonaparte emits gloomy forecasts,

Supposedly, Golden Boy hones in on Joe's struggle between art and commerce. The catch is that in Odets's scenario, there isn't much of a conflict. Though Numrich has honed his boxing skills, at no point during the play is he asked to manifest Joe's profound passion for the violin. The absence of such tension reduces the play to the depiction of one man's all but unstoppable downward spiral.

This is, of course, Odets's problem, which Sher inherits. For whatever reason, the playwright never gives us a glimpse of Joe actually playing -- did he write the scene, was Adler unable to carry it out, is it the victim of a technical knock-out? There is a brief sequence -- perhaps the most thrilling during the three-act action -- when Pop Bonaparte finally hands Joe the $1,200 instrument he's bought as a gift.

Joe, slots the object under his chin, and Numrich fleetingly suggests the boy's attraction to it. Then Sher is required to have Joe exit, and from the wing wafts the sound of a violin negotiating a melancholy strain.

But who's playing it? Surely not Numrich or he'd be on stage demonstrating Joe's heart-breaking dilemma -- or at least he'd be conveying the vestiges of a musician's lapsing devotion. That the audience is thrown out of the play while pondering the mechanics of the situation is a huge setback from which Golden Boy never fully recovers.

(Incidentally, Garfield as the fiddle-playing love interest for square-shouldered Joan Crawford in Humoresque -- with an Odets screenplay -- gets this right, but that, of course, is a movie.)

While the revival lacks that certain something, it's not for the cast holding anything back they're encouraged to give. Looking in many cases like strong candidates for Group Theatre membership, they include, in addition to those already mentioned, Dagmara Dominczyk as Joe's sister Anna, Michael Aronov as beefy brother-in-law Siggie, Jonathan Brad Fletcher as cauliflower-eared Pepper White and -- already looking like authentic card-carrying Groupies -- Ned Eisenberg as blunt-tongued Roxy Gottlieb and Jonathan Hadary as Schopenhauer-quoting neighbor Mr. Carp,

Other than its pungent atmosphere and lines like "Truth is cheap -- I bought it for two cents" in reference to a newspaper, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Odets's play is its autobiographical import. Odets composed it after his first Hollywood trip and obviously felt the attraction of Tinseltown cash in opposition to artistic integrity.

Looked at from this angle, the boxing in Golden Boy becomes a metaphor for the fight Odets was painfully experiencing between moolah and monastic dedication. It's a struggle which -- given Joe's figurative k-o at play's end -- Odets saw himself inevitably losing.

He almost makes it seem as if in the work's structure, he's charted the rest of his life. It's as if he means the script to serve as an urgent note to self. As his life played out -- in some oblique manner like Joe's -- the note wasn't one he took to heart.