The scenery wouldn’t budge at Wednesday night’s performance of “Golden Boy” just before the big Act III finale, leeching the last bit of dramatic tension from an evening that had none to spare.
Clifford Odets’s art-versus-commerce drama opened 75 years ago in the same beautiful Belasco Theatre where Lincoln Center Theater’s revival has just opened (why the nonprofit company chose to rent a Broadway house when its Beaumont home base is about to go dark is a question worth asking).
More than the scenery is creaky in Bartlett Sher’s good- looking but oddly cast and unengaging production.
The conscience of the rabble-rousing Group Theater, with plays including “Waiting for Lefty” and “Awake and Sing,” Odets had gone Hollywood, in theory to earn enough money to support the work at home.
That’s the subject of “Golden Boy.” Joe Bonaparte, a gifted young violinist and the apple of his immigrant Italian father’s eye, has secretly been learning how to box.
The play opens with Joe seeing an opportunity to make his pro debut in the ring, and he goes for it, launching a lucrative career he knows will destroy his ability to play.
Joe’s rise through the ranks to contender changes him from sensitive naif to power-hungry striver. He lets a gangster buy a piece of him, falls for his manager’s mistress and grows increasingly brutal in the ring.
Occasionally, Dad shows up to mourn the artist son he’s lost to the bright lights, snazzy clothes and sycophants who push him to his limit.
Michael Yeargan’s grubby sets and Donald Holder’s hazy yellow lighting capture the essence of the Bonapartes’ working class apartment, manager Tom Moody’s sketchy office and the grim, gray gyms. Catherine Zuber’s costumes tie it all together as well, from the double-breasted suits for the thugs to the house dresses draping the voluptuous curves of Joe’s married sister and the slinkier get-ups for the girlfriend Lorna.
But “Golden Boy” is dated, the plot contrived and unbelievable (Joe has been training to be a boxer and no one in the family noticed?). It’s a world in which Joe’s sister Anna tells their father that her husband can slap her round as much as he wants. Joe’s handlers constantly tell Lorna to butt out of mens’ business.
The show feels alive when Tony Shalhoub is onstage. As a father crushed by disappointment, he barely raises his voice above a whisper, even when withholding the blessing Joe begs for.
The rest of the cast is good to less-than, with Seth Numrich’s title performance and Danny Burstein as Joe’s trainer in the former category; Anthony Crivello and Yvonne Strahovski as the gangster and the love interest in the latter.
This “Golden Boy” lacks the memorable unity of Sher’s earlier Odets foray, “Awake and Sing!” He’s gotten many of the details right, but the big picture here is out of focus.
Through Jan. 20, 2013, at the Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **1/2
The city hardly lacks for musical accompaniments to the holiday season, but “A Civil War Christmas” is special. Paula Vogel’s sprawling work set in 1864 on the eve of Lincoln’s second inauguration opens with the loveliest choral singing you’ll hear anywhere.
Some of the tunes are familiar, among them, the underground railroad spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” and “Silent Night.” Others borrow from the classical repertory as the company of 11, under the galvanic musical direction of Andrew Resnick, fill the New York Theater Workshop with gorgeous sound.
Vogel’s play -- more a pageant, really -- interweaves several stories, among them: the President heads on horseback to retrieve a gift for his wife left at their cottage, as Mary Todd tries to buy that trendy new must-have from Germany, a Christmas tree.
In a boarding house, John Wilkes Booth and some cronies plan to kidnap Abe. And somewhere in the cold night along the Potomac, a free black woman and her daughter make their way to the District of Columbia while dodging bounty hunters.
The stories all come together on Christmas in a way reminiscent of “Ragtime,” though the conclusion is sentimental and restorative, more Dickens than Doctorow, in keeping with the holiday spirit.
Tina Landau capably directs in story theater fashion -- actors play people, animals and things; there’s little scenery to speak of. The standouts among a fine cast include Sean Allan Krill as Booth, Bob Stillman as Lincoln and Amber Iman as the mother of the little girl.
Through Dec. 30 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. Information: +1-212-460-5475; http://www.nytw.org. Rating: ***
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at email@example.com.