To judge from the vivid revival of "Golden Boy" at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Village Theatre (through March 17), Clifford Odets' allegory about a self-corrupted young musician remains as powerful today as when it first graced the Broadway stage 52 years ago.
Odets himself called the play "symbolic," pitting spiritual ideals against lust for fame and money in what can only be termed an implausible setup: 21-year-old Joe Bonaparte--a brilliant violinist--chooses to become a professional boxer because he believes that he can get to the top quicker in the ring than via the concert hall.
Joe also happens to be a cross-eyed world beater who takes the merest reference to his ocular condition as an insult--and boxing means vengeance. "You can't get even with people by playing the fiddle," Joe says. "If music shot bullets I'd like it better--artists and people like that are freaks today. The world moves fast and they sit around like forgotten dopes."
It is a measure of the production's strength that you forgive the strain on credibility. In fact, this university offering can't be praised too highly for being bold, poetic and--not least--very funny in all the right places. It is also one of the best-looking shows in recent memory.
Some professional Southern California theaters would be hard pressed to match John Iacovelli's setting--a vast, dilapidated gymnasium that serves as a monument to the brutalized world of prize-fight glory--or Jessica Chen's '30s-style costumes, which go well beyond period spectacle to underscore particular dramatic ironies.
Apart from the technical excellence of the brisk scene changes, abetted by Tom Ruzika's expert lighting, one can't say enough about Eli Simon's daring, sure-handed direction. He has staged "Golden Boy" with an extraordinary sense of both the grand gesture and the telling detail.
Sometimes it is just a matter of appropriating the right materials.
For instance, Gene Krupa's drum beat (excerpted from Benny Goodman's hit recording of "Sing, Sing, Sing") pulses through the theater, before the lights come up, like the insistent tattoo of a boxer's speed bag. Meanwhile, two huge fight paintings (copied by scenic artist Zhaoping Wei from classic Depression-era murals) provide epic visual equivalents of the driving beat.
But Simon's touch goes much deeper than setting the tone.
One problem any director of "Golden Boy" must face, for example, is how to persuade the audience that Joe is indeed a master of the violin. Odets has written stage directions that send Joe into the wings to play, unseen, while the sound of his violin wafts into the theater.
Simon chooses to stage the entire scene in full view, however, and he manages to achieve a breathtaking effect. It does not depend on trying to fool us into the belief that Joe actually is playing the instrument but on the emotional honesty of the moment. The experience seemed miraculous during Thursday's opening-night performance, and the audience was properly mesmerized.
Of course, such an indelible moment could not have occurred without Mikael Salazar's authoritative portrayal of Joe in all his guises--sensitive artist, rebellious son, frustrated lover, arrogant and self-destructive champ. But while Salazar is the undeniable star of the show, the revelatory performance of the evening comes from Jon Sidoli as Joe's father.
Sidoli deepens the texture of the production as nobody else does in a large and capable cast. Whenever he is on stage this otherwise melodramatic play acquires tragic dimensions. His nuanced portrayal of the righteous Italian immigrant tormented by the corruption of his son's musical gift is so accurate and moving that it tends to eclipse Joe's inner struggle and thus transforms "Golden Boy" into a father-son conflict more than anything else.
Joe's father has always been seen as the externalization of Joe's conscience. Yet the dominance of their relationship in this production also is a function of less-stunning portrayals of other key roles that invariably revolve around the title character.
Deanne Lorette is sufficiently streety as Lorna Moon, the gum-chewing blonde up from the Newark gutter. But she and Salazar don't quite clinch the doomed pathos of their ill-fated romance. And Mark Booher somehow overwhelms the role of Tom Moody, Joe's manager, with too much energy. By starting his scenes at a pitch that leaves him no place to go, the performance becomes monotonous. Moreover, the impotence of the character cannot be seen as a special plea for sympathy or it becomes a whine.
On the other hand, Mark Nash seems to have a few tricks up his sleeve (literally). His performance in the sinister role of Eddie Fuseli, the paranoid mobster, grows on you by small, nasty increments. As Joe's sleazy alter ego (catch their matching shoes in the third act), he is properly hateful. Meanwhile, Henry Leyva shadows Joe with a quiet, rock-solid performance as Tokio, his gimpy trainer.
For comic relief, Larry Biederman plays fight promoter Roxy Gottlieb as a charmingly clownish character (an unusual interpretation). He leaves the pratfalls to James Calleri as Siggie and the Betty Boop voice to Kitty Balay as Anna.
Given the limitations of a relatively small pool of student actors to choose from for more than a dozen speaking roles, what is so striking about the casting is not only the generally high level of the performances but the way they have coalesced into a satisfying whole. It is really terrific.
A UC Irvine drama department production of Clifford Odets' drama. Directed by Eli Simon. Set design by John Iacovelli. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Costumes by Jessica Chen. With Mark Booher, Deanne Lorette, Mikael Salazar, Henry Leyva, Jon Sidoli, Elihu Goretsky, James Calleri, Kitty Balay, Michael Robinson, Larry Biederman, Mark Nash, Joe Batte, Jack Greenman, Ramin Karjoo, David G. Moore, Tom Humphreys, Steven Vermeulen, Toby Rechenmacher, Buck Stevens. Performances in the Fine Arts Village Theatre on the UCI campus, today through Saturday at 8 p.m.; and a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets: $8 to $10; $5, UCI students; $7, UCI faculty, staff and seniors. Information: (714) 856-6616.