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A Populist Era Springs to Life in ‘Golden Boy’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk about a one-two nostalgia punch--Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble unveils its permanent home, a renovated one-time nickelodeon, steeped in the gritty, populist sensibility of Clifford Odets’ 1937 boxing drama “Golden Boy.”

“Clobber ‘em with authenticity” seems to be the rule in a production that reunites several alumni from the acclaimed 1994 revival of Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” at the Odyssey Theatre. A somewhat creakier vehicle by comparison, “Golden Boy” scores more of a technical knockout in its handsome evocation of a bygone era.

From external trappings (Audrey Eisner’s quietly assured period costumes and realistically furnished sets by Deena Lynn Mullen and Victoria Profit) to the archaic mannerisms with which the entire company animates Odets’ tough-talking characters, the class struggle and scrappy survivalism of the 1930s spring vividly to life--in spite of the script’s sometimes heavy-handed sermonizing.

In this meditation on the corruption of personal integrity, a gifted young Italian American violinist, the not-so-subtly named Joe Bonaparte (Scott Conte), forsakes his artistic calling for the easy money and quick fame of prizefighting--in which, we’re asked to believe, he’s equally skilled.

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Driven both by a mania to escape his impoverished circumstances and by a need to prove a spiteful point to Lorna (Katy Selverstone), the hard-as-nails Jersey gal who rejects him, Conte’s Joe is a convincing portrait of sensitivity overrun by egoism. Steve Vinovich makes a fabulous foil as Joe’s downtrodden manager--the kind of amiable lug who can get away with lines like, “Boy, I still don’t know anything about women!”

Particularly impressive is the ensemble energy that co-directors Marilyn Fox and Gar Campbell maintain among their large cast. Even peripheral characters glow like burnished antiques--Joe’s pedantic neighbor (Orson Bean, spouting amusingly mangled quotes from Schopenhauer), his relentlessly uncouth promoter (Seth Margolies) or his contentedly lower-class brother-in-law (George Villas).

Yet while the capable cast finds more than enough depth in these characters to captivate our interest throughout, a scarcer commodity is ambiguity--the kind of realistic complexity that co-director Fox brought to her domineering matriarch in “Awake and Sing!” Unfortunately, Odets’ script is far more restrictive here.

The uncompromised virtue in Joe’s saintly father is nobly evoked by Paul Perri, but it leaves him no maneuvering room in the ethical sloppiness of life. And while Sam Vlahos’ shady mobster reeks with understated menace, his occasional professed compassion for Joe never rings true.

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In too many instances, Odets was willing to sacrifice credibility for the sake of moralizing. Instead of common folk, we often find extremes steeped in melodrama. Yet transcending this constraint with disarming ease is Selverstone’s richly nuanced performance as the conflicted love interest, making even laughably contrived dialogue ring with heartfelt sadness.

Startling imagery peppers the staging; for instance, Joe holding his shattered hand aloft in irrevocable repudiation of his better nature. Though the inevitable tragedy is formulaic Odets, the stage still resonates with his poetic plea for a social order in which success doesn’t necessitate the betrayal of integrity.

* “Golden Boy,” Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m. Runs indefinitely. $18. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.


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