When they launched Group Theatre, actor/playwright Clifford Odets and his friends were walking a high-wire—and it's a mystery how and where they scraped up the money for the rope. The year was 1931, when Americans were losing their jobs, homes, savings and self-respect to a vicious Great Depression; the place was New York City, where the country's economic trials magnified amid the swollen population. If theater was make-believe, so too was the prospect of the price of a ticket.
But the Group outlasted the decade, with Odets' Golden Boy its most successful entry. If the title sounds familiar, that's because it is. A reworked version went to Broadway in the 1960s, with Sammy Davis Jr. playing a prizefighter who right-crosses his way out of the ghetto. Carlsbad's New Village Arts (NVA) has opted to tackle the original—and while the production values keep pace with NVA's ambitious nature, I can't help but wonder if Sammy's vehicle might have been the better of the two.
Joe Bonaparte is a classical violinist who's as good with a bow as he is with the fist that clenches it; he's also a born professional boxer, and he'll eventually contend for the world lightweight championship. En route, he breaks a hand, potentially jeopardizing both careers—but the incident illustrates a pivotal decision, forcing him to choose between his dormant artistic need and the fame (and woman) he desires. He'll not live to experience the upshot from his choices, to say nothing of his father's devastation over the news of his death.
I won't tell you how he dies, except to say that it doesn't quite work, any more than do the play's layers of understories. Odets had success with this approach in prior entries like Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!; these left-wing indictments of capitalist greed center on broader topics such as workplace inequity and ethnic displacement. But Golden Boy starts out like a character sketch, fairly simple in its presentation of one man's dual nature.
Somehow, Odets doesn't stop there—he writes it like his manifestos of yore, introducing no fewer than 15 characters to tell the story behind three or four. The plot can't really support so much new information, and we're left with a lot of stray ends.
If physicality is your deal, you'll find markedly less to complain about. As smarmy fight manager Tom Moody, Manny Fernandes is the best I've ever seen him. Moody is a philandering husband, dragging his feet at the prospect of marriage to girlfriend Lorna Moon (Amanda Sitton). Seems like he's always looking over his shoulder about something, and Fernandes' dark features and henchman's glower light our imagination as to just what that might be.
Director Joshua Everett Johnson doubles as renowned gambler Eddie Fuseli, who wants a piece of Joe. Johnson's good, although some opportunities for bits of business may have eluded him amid his directorial duties. Michael Zlotnik's Joe is a convincing warrior, and Zlotnik is cast well to type, just like everybody else.
NVA's venue has an extremely wide stage—in fact, I've often wondered if that breadth might weigh adversely into the group's play choices. Not in this case. Set designers Kristianne Kurner and Tim Wallace capture the ponderous script with big set pieces; not a square inch is left unused, either by an actor or an item.
That set accommodates a rush of angst-riddled action, much of which exaggerates the story's import. But if your kind of theater finds its place in NVA's growing stagecraft traditions, then by all means, please see Golden Boy. This review is based on the production of June 27. Golden Boy runs through July 13 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $20-$26. 760-433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org.