Three cheers for all the champions in the knockout revival of “Golden Boy,” Clifford Odets’ 1937 classic, now in a Griffin Theatre production.
The first cheer is for Odets, the Depression-era playwright unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve as he raged against the darker side of the American Dream and the way the quest for material success can warp people’s souls.
The next cheer goes to director Jonathan Berry, who has spent his career working in countless storefront theaters, hellbent on remaining true to his artistic values. Odets would have applauded him, and this wholly enthralling rendering of “Golden Boy” is a testament to his talent.
The third (very loud) cheer goes to Berry’s enormous cast — 15 terrific actors, many of them character types you’d only expect to find during Hollywood’s golden studio days. Of particular note is Nate Santana, a small, wiry, fleet actor of immense intensity who plays Joe Bonaparte, the promising violinist-turned-lightweight prizefighter. He makes every line ring true. (If and when a movie about Rahm Emanuel is made, Santana will be a shoe-in to play him as a young man.)
The final cheer is for the show’s design team, including Dan Stratton (for his easily morphable industrial set), Mieka van der Ploeg (for her ideal period costumes), and Rick Sims (for his cinematic sound).
The story? Joe Bonaparte, just 21, is the son of Italian-American immigrants. His mom is dead, but his dad (Norm Woodel, ideal as a salt-of-the-earth guy) dotes on him and does everything to support his talent as a violinist. Though he adores music, Joe — smart, cockyand plagued by the sense he is an outsider and a loser — also develops his gifts as a boxer, knowing the sport can easily destroy his hands and end his artistic career. And when a series of managers and others start to sense his unorthodox talent in the ring, and his real potential as a money-maker, Joe begins to sell his soul. Adding to his deal with the devil is Joe’s involvement with Lorna Moon (the terrific Nina O’Keefe,), who for years has been mistress to Joe’s manager, Tom Moody (Mark Pracht).
Jason Lindner taps the wisdom and compassion in Tokio, Joe’s trainer. David Prete is perfectly oily as the thuggish promoter who “buys” Joe. John Connolly is a brash promoter. And Morgan Maher is Joe’s thwarted brother-in-law, who loves and abuses his wife (Laura Lapidus).
“Golden Boy” can be seen as an intriguing companion piece to “Russian Transport,” now at Steppenwolf, about the frustrations and temptations facing (more contemporary) first-generation immigrants. It seems the more things change, the more they remain the same.