Hamlet, Laurence Olivier once fliply said, was the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind. Same thing with Joe Bonaparte, the Golden Boy bowing Dec. 6 at the Belasco where he initially debuted 75 years ago. Joe's dilemma, which goes the full three-act distance: he can't decide if he's lord of the rings or lord of the strings.
Speeches do not roll trippingly off the tongue here, as Olivier had implored, but come in rude, blunt blats and splats like a tommy-gun out of the '20s and '30s. This is Clifford Odets shooting from the lip, talking tough, cracking wise, hammering out some pretty hard-bitten characters for the legendary Group Theatre to put across.
A gang working out of Lincoln Center Theater, under the exacting hand of director Bartlett Sher, does an affectionate facsimile of that hard-line style of acting, and you might well find yourself transported back three-quarters of a century to that bygone day when Odets' motley Depression-ridden crew first materialized on this very spot.
Sher spilled his secret, such as it was, at the after-party held a few doors west on 44th Street at the Millennium Broadway Hotel. Essentially, it comes down to the same technique that he employed on Lincoln Center's 2006 Tony-winning revival of Awake and Sing! (also cozily ensconced in the rococo splendors of the Belasco).
"I think the 'style of acting' is go for the truth and stick with it, and you're fine," he advanced simply. "The language comes after. You have to keep going into the details and into the truth, and you have to be very attuned to rhythm. You can't pick up speed until you're ready. I don't know if I could turn it into a named style of acting — except the same one the Group Theatre had, which started with Stanislavski: how to play actions, how to keep yourself moving ahead, all the normal things.
"If you're around the way I work, I start the conversation and make everybody have the same conversation I'm having, so they find their way under the page with me. I'm very honest. I don't have all the answers, but I guide the conversation, so we're all having the same conversation. We're asking the questions together, so they 're feeling the building of the logic of the piece with me, and it grows from there."
The gritty realism from all hands helps camouflage a conflict that never really materializes on the printed page — the improbable, if not downright impossible, struggle of a violinist who would be a boxer. How many of those do you know?
When first we meet Bonaparte, the sensitive musician in him has retreated from sight. He's a young brute who just decked a boxing contender in a sparring match and brazenly applies for the job from the fighter's manager, Tom Moody. Not only does he get the spot, he gets Moody's quasi-fiancee, Lorna Moon, as well. It all makes you wonder how far Eve Harrington would have gone with a few boxing lessons.
The only semblance of his musical past occurs when his father waves a violin under his nose, prompting him to go offstage and play a heart-stopping concerto, before returning to planet earth and the nasty nitty-gritty of the fight game. Nine years later, Odets made amends for the missed violin sessions here by adapting Fannie Hurst's "Humoresque" into a spectacular Joan Crawford sudser in which John Garfield (who played brother-in-law to Luther Adler's Golden Boy in the original production and the title role in the 1952 revival) was an ambitious career violinist.
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