The streetwise boxing pros in Golden Boy rhapsodize about straight punches and left and right hooks – but the Keegan Theatre production of this Clifford Odets play packs a wallop through subtler means: tense silences; shifting currents of flippant, dreamy, bragging talk; even evocative movements of actors doubling as stagehands. Aided by a team of largely compelling actors, director Lee Mikeska Gardner deftly orchestrates the rhythms and intensities of this 1937 work, conjuring up a gripping and all too recognizable vision of restless Americans hungering for happiness in a floundering economy.
Odets’s biggest stage success, “Golden Boy” is the tale of Joe Bonaparte (John Robert Keena), a gifted young violinist who takes up professional boxing as a route to wealth. Making his Faustian bargain more problematic is Lorna Moon (Susan Marie Rhea) – the funny, sexy kindred soul who’s the mistress of his excitable manager, Tom Moody (Jim Jorgensen). As Tom and Lorna court and manipulate the erstwhile fiddler, his father, a soulful Italian immigrant (Tim Lynch), mourns the waste of musical talent. Meanwhile, Joe streaks like a meteor through the gritty world of for-profit pugilism, headed for disaster. (The play, made into a 1939 movie starring William Holden, is said to reflect Odets’s conflicted feelings about working in Hollywood.)
With its high-stakes dilemmas and atmospheric period diction (“For Pete’s sake, use your noodle!”) the story could seem melodramatic or dated, but Gardner and her actors (most of them) locate realism and immediacy from beat to beat. Hinting at vulnerability and cynicism by turns, Rhea does a particularly fine job with Lorna: Even when this character is on the fringe of a scene, listening rather than speaking, you can sense the thoughts and emotions swirling beneath her school-of-hard-knocks surface. And whether she’s hanging out in an office or a gymnasium, this dame looks right at home in 1930s styles (Erin Nugent is the costume designer and George Lucas set designer; Michael Innocenti devised the now-realistic, now-theatrical lighting).
His straight posture signaling the character’s confident physicality, Keena’s Joe is a credible mix of callowness and cockiness, while Lynch’s Mr. Bonaparte radiates a persuasive, sorrowful dignity … In smaller roles, Chuck Young embeds a subtle gentleness in the boxing trainer Tokio; Mick Tinder makes the gangster Eddie Fuseli sinister but not cartoonish; and Stan Shulman is hilarious as the Bonapartes’ Schopenhauer-quoting neighbor Mr. Carp (“It looks like the coffin for a baby,” he says gloomily of a violin case).
Complementing the portrait of these colorful individuals, Gardner adds a few touches that open up broader vistas: an initial tableau of a Depression-era streetscape, for instance. The scene changes have been choreographed so that, as the actors rearrange the walls and furnishings, we seem to catch glimpses of other urban activity: strolling couples in a park or dancers in a dance hall. The use of multi-levels, and of the stage’s depth, enhances the cinematic vibe: It’s as if a whole city, and a waft of American history, is swirling around Joe and his musical, violent hands.