12/17/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Stage Door: Golden Boy, Glengarry Glen Ross

Golden Boy is a knockout.

It's a magnificent exploration of what it means to be an American and how we define success. Set in a lower-class New York neighborhood in 1936, it tells the story of Joe Bonaparte. Like an earlier Bonaparte, he, too, wants to be king of the world.

In Joe's case, that world is boxing. Young Bonaparte (played with fierce drive and complexity by Seth Numrich) is torn between a career as a violinist, which his Italian father (Tony Shaloub) wants, and the lure of big money. The excellent Broadway revival of Clifford Odet's stunning play, now at the Belasco, explores themes of masculinity and choice with laser-like intensity. It's like watching a George Bellows painting come to life.

"Help my son find a truthful success," the senior Bonaparte appeals. But as a parable for success, Golden Boy quickly exposes the underbelly of moral failure within commercial riches.

Music enriches, boxing debases. Joe is a solid boxer -- and his winning streak means he takes his revenge on a lonely childhood, pumping up his self-esteem with flashy clothes and cars. But boxing will destroy his hands, removing him from the world of art and nobility he exalted.

Odets captures the poetry of American street life through its tough characters: Joe's trainer Tokio (Danny Burstein), manager Tom (Danny Mastrogiorgio), Tom's girlfriend Lorna (Yvonne Strahovski) and his violent owner, an Italian gangster (Anthony Crivello) whose bloodlust will infect Joe. The brutality of boxing and its quick money is juxtaposed with a second American ethic: work hard and succeed. That ideal is embodied by his brother-in-law, desperate to buy a cab, and his brother, a union organizer who fights for justice.

Yet Joe is also fighting for his heart; he falls for Lorna, (a brilliant, nuanced Strahovski), a battle-scarred survivor of a brutal childhood, torn between desire and obligation. Golden Boy is a meditation on the American experience, particularly the world of first-generation Americans and their quest for identity and purpose.

Odets is well served by a pitch-perfect cast, beautifully directed by Bartlett Sher, who delivers a riveting production, a reminder of how important theater can be. Shaloub's quiet dignity speaks volumes, as does Burstein's sensitivity. Numrich embodies Joe's vulnerability and ambition with raw honesty. In fact, every aspect of the production -- Michael Yeargan's sets, Catherine Zuber's costumes, Donald Holder's lighting -- is superb.

Golden Boy is a powerhouse play. It is a privilege to see it.

Fifty years later, David Mamet offered his meditation on masculinity and money. The latest revival of Glengarry Glen Ross now at the Gerald Schoenfeld, is sleazier in its scope than Golden Boy and far less dramatic.

Odets offers a panoramic view; Mamet zeros in on specifics. All his men are desperate, competitive and feral; they are only as good as their last sale. Set in a real-estate office in 1983, the salesmen, who double as con artists, use snake oil charm to capitalize on buyers' greed. There is only one goal -- getting on the sales board -- and trouncing your rival by whatever means necessary.

Ironically, the film version of Glengarry, which Mamet adapted, ratchets up the emotional price of failure to a greater degree.

In this incarnation, the plot is secondary; the real pleasure is watching a solid cast, including Al Pacino as Shelly Levene, and Bobby Cannavale as slick Richard Roma, play with Mamet's language. When Roma taunts Lingk (Jeremy Shamos), who wants to renege on the deal, with "that's the wife," he inflates the aggressive world of men against the practicality of women.

We aren't fully engaged with Glengarry's characters, a lack of dramatic tension diminishes the stakes, but as an exercise in acting, listening to Pacino's big score or watching Cannavale reel in Lingk, it's a thing of beauty.