Thursday, December 20, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: 'Golden Boy' on Broadway; 'The Great God Pan' Off-Broadway

Golden Boy
Written by Clifford Odets; directed by Bartlett Sher
Performances through January 20, 2013
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY

The Great God Pan
Written by Amy Herzog; directed by Carolyn Cantor
Performances through January 13, 2013
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Strahovski, Numrich in Golden Boy (photo: Paul Kolnik)
It’s not easy to make a creaky theatrical piece an edge-of-your-seat spellbinder. But that’s what director Bartlett Sher has done with Golden Boy, Clifford Odets’ tragic melodrama that, in this scorching 75th anniversary production (in the theater it premiered at), feels more urgent than anything on or off Broadway.

Odets’ play concerns boxing phenom Joe Bonaparte, an immigrant kid who decides to fight instead of following his artistic temperament to play the violin. Despite the play’s hokiness, there’s humor, tension, romance and tragedy galore, and its characters are wise-cracking, gritty, tough New Yorkers (with one from New Jersey) souls who lead a willing audience through a familiar but absorbing story for three hours.

Sher smartly plays it straight: by avoiding irony or adding a contemporary feel, this production never condescends to the play, taking its plot holes, dated dialogue and near-caricatures at face value. That extends to the brilliant production design: Michael Yeargan’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting create an onstage world in which everyone’s blood, sweat and tears are deeply felt.

Of course, none of this would work without a phenomenal cast, and Sher’s excellent ensemble has not one weak link among its 19 performers. Even small parts, like local sportswriters and rival boxers, are acutely etched, as are juicy supporting roles like Joe’s sister Anna (an appropriately frumpy Dagmara Dominczyk) or talkative neighbor Mr. Carp (a sly Jonathan Hadary). If Tony Shaloub, as Joe’s immigrant father, overdoes his “Eye-talian” accent, he also has profound moments of quiet subtlety toward the end; likewise, Anthony Crivello’s Eddie Fuselli—the mobster promoter who buys a piece of Joe on his way up—begins as an unbearable Little Italy stereotype, then shrewdly reins it in as the show progresses.

The always reliable Danny Burstein nails the essence of Joe’s loyal trainer Tokio, and Danny Mastrogiorgio displays remarkable restraint in what could have been showiness as manager Tom Moody, who reluctantly takes Joe on. Seth Numrich’s Joe perfectly blends bravado and vulnerability, especially in his intimate scenes with Yvonne Strahovski, a superb Australian actress who, in her Broadway debut, takes the stock part of Lorna, Tom Moody’s secretary/mistress from New Joisey, and invests her with so much emotional intensity that she almost steals the play from Odets’ conflicted protagonist.

Strong and Goldberg in Pan (photo: Joan Marcus)
Amy Herzog’s latest play, after her overrated After the Revolution and 4000 Miles, again provides little illumination on an interesting theme: in the case of The Great God Pan, it’s the persistence of memory—or forgetting. Jamie, a 30ish blogger, meets with Frank, a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in years, who confesses that his own father sexually abused him and asks Jamie if he remembers anything that might bolster the criminal case against his dad. Jamie initially demurs, but slowly discovers more about what may have happened to him when he was a child—talking to his sympathetic girlfriend Paige, visiting his parents and the old lady who was his and Frank’s babysitter—but despite circumstantial evidence that something might have happened, he can’t (or won’t) remember.

Herzog tries to keep her characters—and the audience—off-balance. As the possible evidence mounts, Jamie slowly realizes he’s always erased inconvenient memories, but Herzog merely checks off what’s on Jamie’s not-to-do list with little urgency or drama. He didn’t tell his parents when his dog died, he’s cagey about his new job, he bristles when Paige brings up his sexual inadequacies, and he even begs her to allow him a week to think when she announces her pregnancy.

None of this is particularly insightful, which Herzog seems to sense, so she fleshes out her play with peripheral characters. She drags in Polly, the former babysitter, merely so that a wisecracking octogenarian in a wheelchair can garner laughs—and bring up the play’s title, which comes from an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem which Polly recited to the boys. Herzog also includes two dramatically deadly scenes in which Paige—an ex-dancer whose injury ended her career—in her new role as therapist deals with an anorexic teenage girl; they feel like forced attempts to draw a parallel to Jamie’s own emotional baggage.

Carolyn Cantor’s straightforward staging isn’t helped by Mark Wendland’s foliage-laden set, which represents the woods where the boys played while Polly watched them both naturally and symbolically, with neither particularly incisive. And the abruptness of Herzog’s shaggy-dog non-ending—the play should have begun where its author stops—does the director no favors dramatically.

Finally, Cantor’s talented cast cannot overcome these characters’ flimsiness. Jeremy Strong does little more but mope as Jamie, while Sarah Goldberg’s Paige, despite the actress’s natural appeal, remains a cipher. There’s one very strong scene, a small disagreement between Jamie and Paige that plausibly erupts into a battle royale in short order: but it only throws into sharp relief the muddiness and vagueness of the rest.

No comments: