Love or money? Passion or fame? Desire or devotion?
No, I'm not pitching a reality television show, but asking the primal questions that have bedeviled people throughout the ages – and continues to remain relevant to everyone from Snooki on up. They are also the same quandaries that face Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), who decides his road to success in Depression-era New York is paved inside the boxing ring, in Clifford Odets' provocative 1937 drama Golden Boy which is receiving a rare Broadway revival by Lincoln Center Theater at the Belasco Theatre . If the production isn't always a knockout, it lands plenty of powerful punches.
A proud champion of the working class, Odets poses these dilemmas in Golden Boy primarily through Joe's plight, as well as those of the many vivid characters around him. Joe is an extremely gifted violinist, but once the callow young man weasels his way into the office of boxing manager Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), there's no turning back. After Joe wins a few fights, and falls hard for Moody's tough-talking but rather tender-hearted mistress Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski), music becomes little more than an afterthought as Joe's eyes remain firmly fixed on other prizes.
While current-day playwrights rarely use more than a handful of characters, Odets throws in nearly 20 people – some vital, some superfluous – who variously threaten, cajole, and pummel their way through nearly three hours of talk. Fortunately, as Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific) has proven in many of his theatrical endeavors, casting is paramount to him, which brings much of Odets' language to life. . The production is full of canny, evocative performances, most notably one by an almost unrecognizable Tony Shalhoub (Monk) in a Tony-worthy turn as Joe's old-world Italian father, who does his best to support his son while never blinding himself to the dangers of his boy's career path. Particularly heartbreaking are the scenes when Joe's father refuses to watch him fight, but shows up at the arena nonetheless, just to talk to him.
Numrich, stretching both his acting and physical muscles in a role very different from his previous one as Albert in War Horse, precisely captures Joe's deep insecurity (much mention is made of him being cross-eyed) which is eventually masked, if never fully hidden, by an unpleasant cockiness. Strahovski, the statuesque Australian stunner known to fans of TV's Chuck and Dexter, consistently impresses – and not just with her authentic American accent. She brings a surprising depth to Lorna, who ever-so-self-deprecatingly refers to herself as "a tramp from Newark," but who knows there's more to her than what meets everyone else's eyes and ears.
Adding flavor to this full-course meal are Michael Aronov (Miss Julie), shining in the show's most comic role as Siggie, Joe's ambitious, slightly loutish brother-in-law; the always reliable Danny Burstein (Follies), delivering warmth and wisdom as Joe's seen-it-all trainer Tokio; and Tony Award winner Anthony Crivello (The Phantom of the Opera) as the one-part flamboyant, two-parts terrifying mobster Eddie Fusselli. (Eddie knows the answer to the "love or money?" question!)
Occasionally, as has often been true in Sher's past work (notably Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), some of his directorial notions appear to be ill-conceived. His attempt to create a realistic atmosphere in the training room scenes by filling the stage with half-naked fighters (one of whom even steps semi-nude into a shower) may appeal to many eyes, but those same eyes end up focusing on the flesh when they should be listening to the other characters.
And although the play has only four locales (designer Michael Yeargan created seemingly period-perfect settings), the back-and-forth scene change transitions are clunky, and hurt the show's already leisurely pace. One might say that Sher has squandered the chance to create a completely golden production of this little-seen play, but he has succeeded more-than-admirably in resurrecting this neglected work of thought-provoking theater.