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GOLDEN BOY at ICTC has a method to bringing Odets’ deeply wounded characters to life

THE BASICS: GOLDEN BOY, the 1937 drama by Clifford Odets presented by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, runs through Sunday, October 7, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at the ICTC’s home, the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street (853-ICTC). Full service bar in a charming lounge. www.irishclassicaltheatre.com Runtime: a little under three hours, with two 10-minute intermissions.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Joe Bonaparte is a talented violinist but this conflicted young man thinks that he has found a faster ticket to fame and fortune in boxing, and apparently, he truly is talented in both arenas. Fight manager Tom Moody needs money to buy a divorce from his wife so that he can marry his girlfriend Lorna Moon, and hopes that this brash unknown could be a rainmaker. It turns out that with his superior mind and powers of observation, along with help from sympathetic trainer Tokio, Bonaparte is indeed successful in the ring, but not in the eyes of his father. There are huge classic themes in this play, any one of which could make for an evening’s drama, including a love triangle, a troubled father-son relationship, a journey of self-discovery, and the search for redemption, to name a few.  

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is a fine production, well directed, wonderfully acted, that moves right along and will keep you fully engaged for the entire three hours.

Rolando Martin Gomez as Mr. Bonaparte and Anthony Alcocer as Joe Bonaparte | Photo by Gene Witkowski

Here are some things about the American playwright, Clifford Odets, that might inform your understanding of his creation, the troubled young violinist/boxer Joe Bonaparte who wants to be taken seriously: Born something of an outsider, to Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants, Odets was impatient with high school and dropped out to create his own dramatic (think street performer) personality, successful in a small way, but a bit unfocused as young men often are. He needed a mentor, a trainer, like the character Tokio. That person was Lee Strasberg founder of the Actors Group. In his twenties Odets spent most of his on-stage career as an understudy with that group, waiting for his “big chance” as it were. Standing in the wings, with time on his hands, he was encouraged to write plays, and then success brought him to Hollywood, where he fell in love with the glamorous, moneyed life of adoration and fast cars. But that’s not how he began. He was only 23 when in 1929 the world economy crashed and so he spent his early creative years during the Great Depression, which informed his leftist, pro-labor politics. Can you say conflicted?

Cassie Cameron as Lorna Moon and Christian Brandjes as Tom Moody | Photo by Gene Witkowski

Believe it or not, one of Odets’ personal heroes was the classical composer Beethoven, and Odets’ creation, the boxer Joe Bonaparte, is actually a depiction of Beethoven. Yes, Beethoven, now recognized as a genius, was in his lifetime a rather unlikeable fellow to many, just as the boxer Joe Bonaparte is rough around the edges, rude and crude to everyone he meets and just like Beethoven he would become enraged at perceived slights. Beethoven longed for marriage and stability but always went after the wrong girl. And, like Joe Bonaparte the boxer, Beethoven was a troubled talent who wrestled with a desire for fame and recognition among the populace while always cognizant of his own superiority to everyone around him.

Bonaparte the violinist/boxer is Beethoven the pianist/composer. And, you might want to know, Beethoven’s hero was the god Prometheus, who defied Zeus (and paid the price) to bring fire to mankind. That idea of a higher calling, of rising above, permeates the play GOLDEN BOY.

When Odets wrote his plays, he had in mind his friends the actors who followed Strasberg’s ideas of what is called “Method Acting” (think Marlon Brando). “Method” is apparently very much alive and well today, as we learned (even though nobody said that word) during the “Thursday Talk-Back” where Jeffrey Coyle, who plays “Roxy Gottlieb,” said that his biggest thrill was watching his fellow actors grow into their roles as they slowly inhabited their characters from the first day of rehearsal right up to and including that evening’s performance. That’s Method. And Steve Jakiel, who plays “Mr. Carp,” added that everyone on stage constantly searches for what inner motive drives their character’s action, as each actor thinks about what his or her character wants to achieve. That’s absolutely Method. So, I think we can say that the production at the Irish Classical Theatre is about as true to Odets as you’re likely to get.

Christian Brandjes as Tom Moody, Anthony Alcocer as Joe Bonaparte and David Lundy as Tokio | Photo by Gene Witkowski

The small theater in the round is chock full of highly respected Buffalo actors, many of them ICTC veterans, and everybody’s performance was a knock-out. Yes, some performers were on stage more than others, but everybody played a part (literally) in bringing this production home. Of course, the central trio are Christian Brandjes as the manager Tom Moody, Cassie Cameron as the manager’s long-suffering girlfriend Lorna Moon, and Anthony Alcocer as the “Golden Boy” boxer. And rounding out this inner circle, David Lundy is Tokio the trainer, and Jeffrey Coyle is loud-mouth Roxy Gottlieb, a character whose function, I believe, is to make the others seem more “normal” or at least palatable.

Young Joe Bonaparte’s extended family includes Rolando Gomez as the father, David Autovino as the labor organizing older brother, Arin Lee Dandes as his sister, Adam Yellen as the brother in law, and Steve Jakiel as the family friend. Various characters from boxing are Gabriel Robere as another fighter, David Mitchell as his trainer and manager, Gerry Maher as reporter and later as boxing commissioner, and from the dark underbelly of the boxing world, Eric Rawski as Eddie Fuselli, a nasty fellow who is nonetheless very protective of the Golden Boy.

One quirk of Clifford Odets writing that you might want to be ready for is that he likes to start in medias res, meaning “in the middle of the action” so there is no prologue, no warm-up.

One quirk of Clifford Odets writing that you might want to be ready for is that he likes to start in medias res, meaning “in the middle of the action” so there is no prologue, no warm-up. We’re thrown into the tempest-tossed relationship of Tom and Lorna and then “pow” – in bursts Joe Bonaparte, the “Golden Boy,” in an entrance that is as abrupt and confusing for us as it was for the characters on stage.

The vintage jazz music chosen by Tom Makar was appropriate and fitting. But what struck me after the show was how the songs of Bruce Springsteen reflect today the very issues that Odets was writing about: alienation, shame, powerlessness, desire, wounded pride, love, and, of course, driving fast cars at night. And, I was also thinking about the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” with the lines: “Everybody’s looking for something / Some of them want to use you /  Some of them want to get used by you / Some of them want to abuse you / Some of them want to be abused.” Yup, that’s about right.

UP NEXT: The regional premiere of SIVE billed as a national Irish treasure and pitched as “an intimate and unflinching view of Irish country folk living in abject poverty and hopelessness in rural County Kerry.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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