"Golden Boy" by Clifford Odets, being admirably staged by the New Century Theater at St. John's Church, may seem a little melodramatic by today's standards, but time has not diminished the power and poignancy of this 1930s work.
Incisively directed by Mark Redfield, the play is packed with philosophical and sociological ideas on the perplexing state of humanity. It features an impressive three-level set and mostly fine performances by a very talented cast.
It is the time of the Great Depression. The central character of Joe Bonaparte is a paradoxical role, a frustrated symbol of the times. At 21, he is a young man at war with himself, torn between his love of the violin and his desire to get even with those who have hurt his sensitive nature.
So, ever ready with his fists, he takes the quick road to the power and fortune he seeks by becoming the leading contender for the lightweight championship.
In doing so, he is fully aware that a hand broken in the ring will destroy his promising music career and break his Italian father's heart.
First staged in New York in 1937 by the Group Theatre under the direction of Harold Clurman, Odets' play was made into a film in 1939 and starred William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck.
Later productions include an unsuccessful revival in the early '50s featuring John Garfield and an acclaimed interracial musical version in 1965 starring starring Sammy Davis Jr.
Odets was the social commentator of his era, a watchdog for the human heart. Writing in a unique, lyrical style flaked with ironic humor, he is concerned with little people -- their dreams, illusions and pain.
As the story progresses, Joe falls in love with his fight manager's mistress and later becomes the protege of a gun-happy, neurotic gangster. In his passionate drive for success at all costs, he brings grief to his family and puts himself and the sport of boxing in peril.
The New Century version was slow in starting but picked up pace as it went along. There are good production values. The '30s music contributes well to the period ambience. Lissa Pasternak, an accomplished professional musician, plays a beautifully mournful violin as backdrop to the play.
Dan Baileys is superb as Irishman Tom Moody, Joe's decent fight manager, bringing in-depth dimension to this very human and vulnerable role. Patricia Coleman gives a strong performance as Moody's girl (the "tramp from Newark") and the woman Joe loves. As the wisecracking and smart-mouthed Lorna, Coleman clearly shows us the character's difficult struggle to choose between love and obligation.
Bob Riggs turns in a finely honed performance as Joe's hard-working father who sacrificed much to enable his son to pursue the dream of becoming a professional violinist.
Ron Bopst does nicely as Tokio, a compassionate, caring fight trainer. B. Thomas Rinaldi is thoroughly believable as a rude, crude fight promoter who wants a piece of the action.
Christopher Wise as the gun-toting gangster, Eddie, is chillingly sinister, and Thomas E. Cole stands out as a brutish young boxer on the skids at age 29. Andrea Joy is engaging as Joe's married sister.
David Malley as Joe's brother, Roland Hertz as the father's acerbic friend and Harry Susser as Joe's Jewish brother-in-law need stronger character projections. As of now, they are turning in weak performances.
As Joe, the Golden Boy of the moment, Brandon Park has promise as an actor but has not yet gotten into the head of his character. Park turns in a one-level performance that lacks the savage vitality and terrible drive that possess Joe.
We must see Joe's frustration and heartbreak on giving up the violin. We must see his loneliness, his great need. This man is hurting terribly and this should be touchingly apparent through all his ruthless behavior.
Still, overall, this is an outstanding production that illuminates the darker and finer sides of human nature. "Golden Boy" runs through Sept. 28.