Chicago Theater Review: GOLDEN BOY (Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on February 25, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

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WHEN THE BRASS RING IS JUST ANOTHER NOOSE

Laura Lapidus, Morgan Maher, Norm Woodel, Jerry Bloom, Nate Santana and Nina O'Keefe in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Jonathan Berry.The siren song of the bitch-goddess “success” croons loud and clear in this cautionary, modern melodrama. Golden Boy, Clifford Odets’ 77-year-old potboiler about a guy who decides to use his fingers as a fist rather than to play an instrument, hasn’t lost its knockout impact or visceral drive. The protest playwright gave his title character Joe Bonaparte a cruel challenge: The 21-year-old lightweight alters from an idealistic music-lover, whose vocation is the pure pleasure of playing the violin (when he most feels special), into a brutal and venal prizefighter, who, far from escaping poverty’s pain, is even more exploited. Joe’s simple, loving father is helpless as his driven boy grabs hard for fake glory. In the end Joe’s kill-or-be-killed credo gets ruthlessly vindicated. Short-term wishing means long-term death.

Nate Santana and Nina O'Keefe in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Jonathan Berry.In bold scenes charged with urban realism, hard-boiled dialogue and gritty poetry, Odets makes you taste the encroaching corruption of this “cock-eyed wonder.” Though this American tragedy spawned innumerable imitations, few are as symbolically potent. (When Joe kills in the ring, he’s already dead inside.) A warning against the power of materialism to kill the soul, Odets’ unashamedly moral work depicts the crisis faced by any dreamer who abandons a calling to pursue a career.

Pulling no punches, Jonathan Berry’s staging for Griffin Theatre galvanizes Odets’ volatile mix of earthy humor, soaring lyricism, and a driving jazz soundtrack underscoring the hunger and desperation of these Depression survivors. (Finally, grit wins out: Departing from the polemics of Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy was the hardest-boiled script to come out of the ashcan-kicking Group Theatre.) Vindicated by an ending as abrupt as it is inevitable, this rouser is all about speeding too fast through your life to learn what matters. Despite the author’s own love of repetition for effect, these 165 minutes rush by with an Odets-like inevitability.

If half the battle is casting, Berry has a qualified victory. Handsome, energetic, but somewhat scrawny, Nate Santana never suggests a professional boxer and his musical skills get demonstrated offstage (as the script allows). But when it counts he delivers the non-negotiable greed that defines–and destroys–Joe Bonaparte. Also Santana couldn’t feel more Italian, his hands never stopping even when he’s not fighting. (It’s as if Joe is always hearing invisible bells in imaginary rounds that Jason Lindner, Nate Santana, Norm Woodel and David Prete in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Jonathan Berry.have slowly consumed his life.) Nina O’Keefe makes Lorna Moon, the good-time girl from needy Newark who shows Joe a way out, stand for every hard-luck hoper pining for a second chance.

There are no weak links in this golden cast. No ethnic joke, Norm Woodel, as Joe’s old-fashioned father, solidly supplies the play’s moral grounding. Playing Joe’s feckless boozehound of brother-in-law (who’ll be happy enough just to drive a cab), Morgan Maher exudes a born loser’s frenzied conniving. Depicting Joe’s loyal–and betrayed–manager, David Cady Jr. handles the tough talk like a trouper and Jason Lindner’s sympathetic trainer impresses just by looking incorruptible. Among the evil-doers, David Prete seethes with menace as a Mafioso fixer, and bumptious John Connolly is hideously hilarious as a loudmouth hanger-on.

One of Berry’s smartest touches is to freeze the action between the scenes, the cast in half-light staring at the audience as if we should intervene. We can’t and the doom is on the rose.

Nate Santana and Norm Woodel in Griffin Theatre Company’s production of GOLDEN BOY by Clifford Odets, directed by Jonathan Berry.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Golden Boy
Griffin Theatre Company
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
scheduled to end on April 6. 2014
for tickets, call (773) 975-8150 or visit www.theaterwit.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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