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Whipping "Golden Boy" Into Fighting Shape Bartlett Sher's vision for his Broadway revival

By ERIC GRODE

When Bartlett Sher first floated the idea of directing Golden Boy for Lincoln Center Theatre, he proposed doing it in repertory with Hamlet. "I thought it would make a great statement about American acting," he says, "and the casting needs are pretty similar."

Ultimately, however, the Clifford Odets boxing melodrama, with its sparring palookas and hovering mobsters, proved to be plenty for Sher and his cast of 19. And so Golden Boy---which has returned to the Belasco Theatre, where it premiered 75 years ago---is going it solo.

Sher has made a name for himself as one of New York's most versatile directors, bouncing from the classics (his Cymbeline was the first American Shakespeare production to be staged at the Royal Shakespeare Company) to musical theatre (South Pacific) to August Wilson (making him the first white director authorized to direct a Wilson play on Broadway) to opera (the Metropolitan Opera's Barber of Seville, which he is currently trimming for a family-friendly holiday mounting).

His previous encounter with Odets, whose giddily demotic Depression-era dramas are rarely revived today, came in 2006 when he helmed Awake and Sing! , also for Lincoln Center Theatre. In fact, it was LCT's artistic director, Andre Bishop, who introduced Sher to the iconic American playwright.

"Andre has always believed that these are extremely important American plays that deserved to be seen," Sher says. "Taking them on is really good for your muscularity---as an actor, as a director, as an audience member, as all of us."

While the subject matter in Golden Boy is still resonant---a sensitive young man named Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich) struggles to reconcile his integrity and his ambitions in a brutally capitalistic society---Odets' florid language poses perhaps the biggest hurdle for modern-day audiences. In Awake and Sing! , Sher balanced the language by with eye-catching scenic trickery, gradually dismantling the set to convey the dissolution of the family at its center. But his Golden Boy staging hews closely to the realism of 1930s locker rooms, gyms, and walk-up offices.

Discussing the different approaches, he explains, Awake and Sing!  was so mired in the naturalistic apartment that I was trying to blow it out into an elevated universe, but Golden Boy already has so many settings. For me, the logic of Golden Boy is the internal logic of Joe Bonaparte as he confronts his father, his success, his place in the world."

The production's verisimilitude is helped by the array of character actors Sher has assembled. The memorable faces of Jonathan Hadary, Ned Eisenberg, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony Crivello, and many others help bring to mind the rogues' gallery that was the 1930s Warner Brothers backlot, while Catherine Zuber's costumes and Michael Yeargan's sets complete the picture.

"I don't necessarily design through casting," Sher says, "but I'm aware of the authenticity that can come with faces. And Cathy can also pull them into the world based on the way they look. The wide-brimmed hats alone have a huge impact on the show. They're so particular, and they just do this certain thing to the silhouette."

Sometimes, then, bringing Odets's needling, urgent, jazzy voice into the 21st century involves taking apart a set in front of the audience's eyes, and sometimes it just takes the right brim.

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Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University's Goldring Arts Journalism Program

Photo by Paul Kolnik