Cactus Theatre

at Synergy Center

At first glance, the conflict at the center of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy seems laughable, naive at best. The protagonist is the literally cockeyed Joe Bonaparte, a defensive young man driven by a fierce desire for success as well as the money, fame, and recognition that (in his philosophy) attend it. His drive and natural pugnacity lead him into the boxing ring, where all his desires seem within reach. There’s only one stumbling block–he’d really rather play the violin.

The potential schmaltz of this scenario and the absurd pairing of tough guy Joe with the sensitive, weepy violin together make Golden Boy seem a relic–it’s far less likely to be trotted out onstage than Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing. It was, however, one of Odets’s most successful efforts when it was presented by the Group Theatre in 1937.

Cactus Theatre, celebrating its fifth anniversary with this production, conspires to make the play a success again, schmaltz and all. This production just goes to show that you can read a play until you’re as cockeyed as its protagonist and still miss the potential for emotion realized (seemingly effortlessly) by one determined, talented company like Cactus.

Director Robert Ellermann and his cast tear headlong into Odets’s wild sentimentality, indulging in flights of emotion (semiarticulate and pithy by turns) with such honesty and finely focused concentration that the pain expressed is never laughable. Joe and his violin are indeed an unseemly pair–he seems to know that as well as anyone, and it is this realization that drives him from the one thing that gives him peace: his music.

“Playing music . . . that’s like saying, ‘I’m a man. I belong here,'” he explains. “When I play music nothing is closed to me. I’m not afraid of people and what they say.” But violins and peace of mind do not supply the sort of power Joe’s pride demands. “You can’t get even with people by playing the fiddle,” he admits. “If music shot bullets, I’d like it better.” He finds an outlet for his rage, and success, in the lightweight boxing ring, but only at the price of his wrecked hands, music, and inner light. In this play Odets looms as large as ever, intoning that you can have the power of success or the power of your art but never both. In his book, to prosper is to sell one’s soul.

What marvelous meat, after all, for a non-Equity company to sink its teeth into. Especially Cactus, going strong after five years, dodging the lethargy that might come with well-being (it would be rash to call the troupe prosperous).

Ellermann has dispensed with period, although he makes the play race along in breakneck 30s style. Cordless telephones and blue jeans are in evidence, and he soft-pedals or cuts entirely any mention of labor strikes or the Depression. Ellermann makes it clear that the weight of Joe’s dilemma rests not so much on economics as it does on his lack of self-esteem, and on the society responsible for that. Otherwise, Ellermann wisely avoids any directorial flourishes, providing a straightforward staging.

The acting is almost uniformly powerhouse. The ensemble–Amelia Barrett, Bryan Burke, Jim Cantafio, Kenneth Cavett, Sheila O’Malley, Bart Petty, Michael Shuler, Paul Swetland, David Volin, David Wagner, and Neil Weiss–all deserve mention for their passion and their thoughtful, detailed performances. (As Eddie Fuseli, the homosexual mafioso who owns a piece of Joe, Shuler goes slightly over the top, however, fondling Joe’s gloves and even Joe himself in a manner the fighter would be unlikely to tolerate. Shuler can’t be faulted for lack of commitment, at any rate, but Ellermann might have done well to trim some of the fat from this performance.) Barrett is luscious and complicated as the hard-boiled woman Joe can’t have, and as Joe himself Burke is all nervous contradiction and hopeful young-male charm. His slow disillusionment is painful to watch, and as convincing as his excellent shadowboxing.