- Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, and: Picnic by William Inge
Just blocks from one another in midtown Manhattan last January, stunning revivals of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (1937) and William Inge’s Picnic (1953) reaffirmed the astounding range of mid-twentieth-century American theatre. While showcasing the accomplishments of current theatre practitioners, these worthy productions also demonstrated that revisiting American plays can allow contemporary audiences to reconnect with enduring texts and one another.
Odets and Inge, perhaps alike only in their shared dissatisfaction with American economic and social values, nonetheless both worked in an era shaped by modernism. As the influence of that movement began to wane, their once formidable reputations diminished as well. Although neither this Golden Boy nor this Picnic will catapult their authors into the first rank of American dramatists, these vivid productions forcefully reasserted the playwrights’ individual accomplishments in molding lasting characters out of a genuine American landscape of big cities and small towns alike—characters who speak an idiomatic language that, decades later, we instantly understand and whose struggles to define their identity against the pull of family and the lure of success remain as familiar and foreboding as ever.
Staged in the same theatre where Harold Clurman and the Group Theatre’s production premiered seventy-five years ago, Golden Boy featured a remarkable ensemble of nineteen actors who, in meticulous and multilayered performances, created the disparate worlds of the sleazy prize-fighting business and the nurturing, suffocating family home with an engaging veracity that seemed to echo the aesthetic and practice of the Group Theatre. Bartlett Sher, who directed Odets’s Awake and Sing! for Lincoln Center Theatre in 2006, unapologetically embraced the play’s clunky thematic dichotomy, [End Page 568] presenting Joe Bonaparte’s inner conflict between boxing and playing the violin as emblematic of a national psychomachia. This clash between altruism—epitomized in the play by the labor crusades of Joe’s brother Frank—and material success—represented by Joe’s addiction to fast cars—became a central theme for Odets and the Group Theatre during the 1930s. Sher’s staging of Golden Boy drew much of its power from the contemporary audience’s recognition of that unresolved conflict as it continues to propel the American experiment toward the unknown.
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This ominous future was further emphasized in Michael Yeargan’s scenic surround of impersonal buildings towering over both the Bonapartes’ apartment and Tom Moody’s office with equal indifference as the settings slid quickly into place and thus reinforced the driving rhythm of the production. A risky though effective scenic choice—Yeargan’s abrupt change to a sweaty realism for the boxing gymnasium and locker room, captured in Donald Holder’s harsh lighting—established a violent and homoerotic milieu where Joe’s homosexual manager Eddie Fuseli (the properly repulsive Anthony Crivello) reigned like a pimp while clueless naked boxers paraded past him into the showers.
Clad in Catherine Zuber’s superbly realized costumes, the majority of the cast—notably Danny Mastrogiorgio as two-bit fight promoter Tom Moody, Yvonne Strahovski as his tart-tongued mistress Lorna Moon, and Danny Burstein as Joe’s understanding trainer Tokio—delivered Odets’s rapid-fire dialogue with an assurance that, like their clothes, both invoked and transcended Hollywood films of the 1930s to create gritty, funny, and moving theatre where past and present merged in the immediacy of their performances. But it was Tony Shalhoub who, despite being saddled with a dated ethnic stereotype, created the production’s most accomplished performance. As Joe’s immigrant father, Shalhoub crafted Odets’s clichéd, broken English into a wonderfully complex and empathetic character who listened more than he spoke and seemed at times to withdraw into himself and the solace of [End Page 569] his dream...