Monday, December 3, 2012

Golden Boy: Art vs. Commerce

Tony Shalhoub, Seth Numrich, Dagmara Dominczyk, and Michael Aronovin Golden Boy (Photo by Paul Kolnik)
When you read about the Group Theatre, the legendary company that introduced Stanislavskian acting to the American theatre in the 1930s, you can’t help wondering what their performances were really like. You can get some sense of this pioneering Method acting style when you watch John Garfield, the only one of the troupe who became a movie star, or Lee J. Cobb, who went on to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway (and revisited the role years later on television) and the gangster Johnny Friendly in On the Waterfront, or the few remnants Morris Carnovsky, the Group’s master actor, has left us of his work, in featured movie roles and TV appearances. But the first time I really got a feel for the Group Theatre style was when a PBS documentary about them included a clip I’d had no idea even existed: Luther Adler’s screen test from the mid-thirties, which replicated a scene that he and Phoebe Brand had played together on stage in Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! (Adler and his sister Stella, the children of the celebrated Yiddish Theatre star Jacob Adler, were two of the Group’s leading actors; Brand, who married Carnovsky, came out of retirement to play Nanny in Vanya on 42nd Street.) The clip is maybe two minutes long, and you can’t even see Brand’s face, yet it’s a revelation. Certainly the acting is grounded by a rock-bound naturalism, but it’s more heightened than I’d imagined, more theatrical – in the best way. The scene is between Moe Axelrod and Hennie Berger, one-time lovers who are still desperate for each other but so resentful and defensive that they circle each other warily like nervous animals, every now and then reaching out a paw to swipe one another; and the two actors aren’t afraid to go for broke. You can hear the stage training in the broad vocal palette, in Brand’s free use of tremolo (a more old-fashioned choice than I would have guessed, but extremely effective here) to underscore her character’s woefulness and in the nobility in Adler’s stature and in the way he holds his face to the light.  (Among the Method actors of the next generation of Method actors, Ben Gazzara notably retained that quality.) You believe fully that you’re watching the characters, yet you don’t forget you’re watching actors. Perhaps no Method actor could make you forget that until Marlon Brando.

I thought of Adler’s screen test during Golden Boy, Bartlett Sher’s magnificent new Broadway production of the 1937 Odets play that was the Group’s biggest hit. (Adler played the title role, Carnovsky was his father, and Cobb, Garfield and Brand were all in the company, as well as the Hollywood actress Frances Farmer and two future directors, Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt.) Odets trained as an actor with the Group but early on he began to write plays for them; seven were produced during the Group’s decade-long existence (it finally collapsed in 1941), including Waiting for Lefty, Paradise Lost and of course Odets’s masterpiece, Awake and Sing! He was the closest they had to an official playwright-in-residence, and Golden Boy is his most personal play. Before he wrote it, and again afterwards, he spent time in Hollywood, where he knew his talents were being squandered, as Hollywood squandered the gifts of so many of the great east-coast writers in the thirties and forties, but which offered him a luxurious lifestyle that, like so many others, he found hard to resist. The battle between what you do for your soul and what you do to make a buck is at the heart of Golden Boy, in which Joe Bonaparte, the working-class son of Italian immigrants, a talented violinist, becomes a boxer, a choice that breaks his own heart as well as his father’s and imperils his soul.

Director Bartlett Sher winning a Tony in 2008 for South Pacific
Sher, who was responsible for The Light in the Piazza and the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific as well as a number of other terrific productions (some of them at the Metropolitan Opera), may be the best American stage director working today. But he fell on his face when he tried to mount Awake and Sing! at Lincoln Center in 2006. He couldn’t seem to work out what to do with Odets’s naturalism; he imposed an expressionistic overlay in the scenic design and the staging that was so distracting that you lost track of the play, and there were some major casting errors (though it was very moving to see Gazzara, at the end of his career, in the role of the old Marxist grandpa, and he was mesmerizing). But if Sher wasn’t ready to tackle Odets six years ago, he is now. The large company (nineteen actors) embodies the ensemble ethic that was one of the Group’s most valued aims: even actors with tiny roles, like Brad Fleischer as Pepper White, the seasoned battler who boasts about his flattened hands, and Daniel Jenkins as the outraged manager grieving for his dead prizefighter, make distinct individual impressions. Everyone handles the poetic excesses of Odets’s language gracefully, muting the poetry without squashing it, so that the sometimes oddball argot fits easily in these characters’ mouths. (That’s especially true of Ned Eisenberg as the fight promoter Roxy Gottlieb, who does wonders with lines like “Whatta you keep a thing like that incognito for?” and “He goes past my head like a cold wind from the river!”) Naturalism with all the vivid colors of a Thomas Hart Benton painting: that’s what Sher and his actors bring to Golden Boy.

This is a very important work in the history of the American theatre: it was the first to dramatize the struggles between art and commerce, art and celebrity, and it invented the archetype of the sensitive young boxer that became a mainstay in the history of American Method acting. (John Garfield first brought it to the screen in Body and Soul in 1947, Brando made it indelible in On the Waterfront, and there have been many others, like Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity, Robert Ryan in The Set-Up, Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Jack Palance in the TV production of Requiem for a Heavyweight.) But I have to confess that I’ve never been a huge fan of the play itself, and the only other production I’ve seen, which Joanne Woodward directed at Williamstown twenty-five years ago with a young Dylan McDermott as Joe, did nothing to alter my perception that it’s second-rate Odets. (The size of the cast alone has kept the play off the boards.) But a brilliant production can illuminate the corners of a play that have previously remained in shadow, and I have to report, with happy embarrassment, that I’ve underrated Golden Boy. It’s a great, heart-shattering American play.

Odets juxtaposes the apartment that Joe (Seth Numrich, who originated the role of the boy in the Broadway production of War Horse) shares with his family with the scenes in the office of his manager, Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio) and in the gym and several dressing rooms in boxing arenas, so that we see the protagonist’s two worlds side by side. At home Joe lives with his widowed father (a profoundly touching performance by Tony Shalhoub), his brother Frank (Lucas Caleb Rooney),  a labor organizer, and his sister Anna (Dagmara Domniczyk) and her voluble cabbie husband Siggie (Michael Aronov), who have an embattled, sexually fulfilling marriage. Mr. Bonaparte’s sympathetic Jewish pal Mr. Carp (the expert character player Jonathan Hadary, who never disappoints) is generally around, too, hashing over Schopenhauer. It’s a warm, companionable environment. Mr. Bonaparte is in love with the messiness and variety of life; he gets a charge out of the quarrels between Anna and Siggie because he knows that as long as they’re shouting at each other, they’re alive. But he turns out Siggie’s plea for a loan so he can buy his own cab and puts his hard-earned money toward a twenty-first birthday present for Joe, a violin that he’s asked Joe’s teacher to pick out. Joe sells his boxing talent to Moody at the top of the first act but it takes him the entire act to talk to his papa about it, and by that time Frank has read about one of his victories in the ring and spilled the beans. Joe holds back for the same reason he holds back in the ring, protecting his hands: he isn’t sure whether he’s a musician or a fighter. By the end of the act, he’s made his decision. And he’s just about to go on the road when his father gives him the new violin, delicately placing a cloth on his shoulder (Sher added this lyrical touch).  Joe vanishes into his bedroom to try it out while Mr. Bonaparte sits in his easy chair cradling the violin case; the music is sweet and plaintive. But when Joe returns he tells his father to return the instrument and goes off without his blessing. This scene is so affecting that the audience staggers into the first intermission.

Yvonne Strahovski and Danny Mastrogiorgio in Golden Boy
That decision is complicated by Moody’s girl friend, Lorna Moon (Yvonne Stahovski), a hard-boiled, been-around-the-block  dame with a bruised heart who’s waiting for Tom to divorce his wife. When Moody and Roxy and Joe’s trainer, Tokio (Danny Burstein), can’t get Joe to commit himself physically in the ring, Tom sends Lorna to soften him up. “I’m a tramp from Newark, Tom,” she assures him. “I know a thousand ways.” But though she’s ready to sleep with him, she isn’t prepared for the ways in which he stirs her feelings. Their first scene alone together, on a park bench, is an acting-class perennial (Lenny Baker and his scene partner work on it in Paul Mazursky’s memoir of his early days as an actor, Next Stop, Greenwich Village); I probably know it off by heart, but I’ve never seen it played with so much electricity – or such complexity. We see what Lorna’s after and how Joe surprises her; when she asks him if his mother’s dead and he says yes, we suddenly understand how that loss has made him both sensitive and combative, protective of his vulnerable side, and when she says that she’s lost her own mother, you sense that she’s said more than she’d planned to, thrown her own secrets into the spotlight. She starts out by analyzing him, then he turns around and does the same to her, which makes her shaky and resistant. She tells him that she doesn’t like him, but what she really means is that she finds him intriguing, a puzzle she can’t solve. From that point on Joe can’t separate out his ambitions as a prizefighter from his feelings for Lorna, who becomes hopelessly conflicted over him. She falls hard for him, but when he tries to get her to leave Tom she can’t: Tom saved her from poverty and despair and she doesn’t have the heart to walk out on him. So Joe’s anger and bitterness escalate, and they coincide with success in the ring and the interest of a gangster named Eddie Fuseli (Anthony Crivello) in getting a piece of his career. (Fuseli, who is Italian himself, likes the idea of an Italian American champ; when he first meets Joe, he talks to him in Italian, creating a hushed paisans’ enclave around the two of them, like Sollozzo chatting up Michael Corleone in the restaurant in The Godfather.)

Joe is cocky and boastful with Tom even in the opening scene, but by the second act he’s acquired more braggadocio and an unlikable hardness. But we see underneath it when his father’s appears in the dressing room before a big fight and finally manages to get out, “Joe, I hope you win every fight.” Joe cries in Tokio’s arms after his father leaves, then buries his head in the table and weeps; he’s fighting his father, he’s fighting himself. He’s trying to grow up in the most painful way; the way Numrich plays this scene, it’s as though he were struggling to give birth to his own independence. He stalks around the room, punching the air. When he returns from the ring a few minutes later, he’s broken his hand; Tokio has to cut his glove off. “Hallelujah! It’s the beginning of the world!” he yells, and you feel that at last he’s done it – he’s broken free of his father, though he may have sold his soul to do it. But when his knockout blow kills a fighter called The Chocolate Drop in the last act, it’s his father he thinks of right away: “What will my father say when he hears I murdered a man?” he asks Lorna, bewildered and frantic.

Sher’s staging is marvelous, as is the work of the three designers, all of whom collaborate with him over and over again: Michael  Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting). And there’s so much superlative acting on offer that, aside from Numrich, Strahovski, Shalhoub and Mastrogiorgio (who bears a striking vocal resemblance to Bobby Cannavale) in the leads, it seems almost unfair to single out other actors. Still, I’d like to say a word about a few more of them. Danny Burstein, whom we’re used to seeing in raucous, comic musical-comedy roles (he was Billis in South Pacific and the cabbie narrator in Sher’s underappreciated production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), gives a tender, lived-in performance in the small role of the trainer Tokio. As Siggie (the John Garfield part), Michael Aronov has an outsize personality that fills the house. And Anthony Crivello brings considerable wit to the tremendously difficult role of Eddie Fuseli, the homosexual gangster whose fastidiousness carries an unmistakable undercurrent of menace. (That’s the part Elia Kazan played in 1937.) Crivello’s line readings always have a suggestive touch, and when, making Joe his pet project, he showers him with silk shirts, the gesture makes you squirm. The ensemble is flawless. You’d swear they were channeling the original Group Theatre.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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