When boxer Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich) realizes his hand is shattered following a brutal match, he howls in pain, despair and also triumphant joy. It’s a stunningly powerful — and complex — moment in “Golden Boy,” now playing on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre, 75 years after a Group Theatre production of the Clifford Odets play premiered. The broken hand symbolizes Joe’s battle for liberation from his father’s values, and his own anguished ambivalence about a career in the ring versus playing the violin, his lifelong passion. But the culture does not value its artists, and, if nothing else, Joe is ambitious. With his destroyed hand he is now wholly free to follow a path that will bring money and fame, explained veteran director Bartlett Sher, who previously helmed Odets’s “Awake and Sing.”
Sher, who won a Tony for his rousing Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers’s and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” spoke with the Forward’s Simi Horwitz about the many conundrums in “Golden Boy” that Odets faced.
“He had moved to L.A. and was making $5,000 a week in 1936 and ’37. He came back to write this play because Harold Clurman begged him to,” Sher said. “He was already in the middle of wondering who he was. So, it’s interesting that he created this scenario between the violence of the boxer, who can destroy humanity with his fists or serve humanity as a musician. It’s an interesting metaphor.”
Simi Horwitz: Don’t you think there are authentic artists who are financially successful?
Bartlett Sher: Yes, but it’s a constant problem of management, especially if you’ve achieved some success. How do you hold on to your core values while addressing all of the pressures and anxieties that come with success? You may not even know you’ve stopped asking the question. You may just start making safer choices. When we were growing up, people said, ‘Oh, you’ve sold out.’ We don’t talk about that anymore. We see glee when someone reaches the top. That’s when people used to say, ‘You’ve sold out.’
What are the challenges in staging Odets in general and “Golden Boy” in particular?
Getting inside the truthfulness of the situation while making sense of the language, which is heightened and poetic. That’s a constant struggle with Odets. “Golden Boy” was especially difficult because it’s a sweeping story with eight different locations, a wide range of characters, and three or four plots. It’s not unlike directing Shakespeare.