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Anthony Chase: 'Golden Boy' is a golden start for Irish Classical Theatre

There is a golden girl at the heart of the Irish Classical Theatre production of Clifford Odets’ 1937 classic, "Golden Boy," and her name is Cassie Cameron.

As Lorna, the role originated by Frances Farmer of the legendary Group Theater, and snapped up by movie icon Barbara Stanwyck for the 1939 film, Cameron gives a five-star performance in this four-star production. Lorna is “a tramp from Newark,” who knows “a dozen ways” to get a man, and Cameron imbues her with a perfect balance of swagger and vulnerability, while taking us on a journey in which desire and pragmatism must collide.

Lorna famously insists that she is her “mother’s girl,” and belongs to no man, but there are actually two men in Lorna’s life. First is her boyfriend, boxing manager Tom Moody, who is married. Next is Joe Bonaparte, the golden boy of the title whose desire to be a great violinist is jeopardized by the temptation to make a ton of money as a prizefighter. Every boxer, we learn, eventually breaks his hands, and this possibility breaks the heart of Joe’s soulful father.

It was inevitable that Irish Classical Theatre eventually arrive at the work of Odets. The playwright modeled his plays on the work of Seán O'Casey, and is seminal in the development of a style of realistic American acting, which is also a hallmark of the Irish Classical Theatre. The play is a perfect choice to open its 2018-2019 season.

"Golden Boy" was Odets’ greatest box office success, following "Waiting for Lefty" in 1934, and his masterwork, "Awake and Sing" in 1935. He wrote specifically for the actors in The Group Theatre, inarguably the most influential theater group in American history.  The Group introduced and promoted the acting “Method” pioneered by Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski. Without The Group, there is no Marlon Brando; there is no Daniel Day-Lewis; there is no Meryl Streep.

Directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, the Irish Classical production tells the story of "Golden Boy" in brash, unflinching gestures, and its formidable length breezes by. Each scene sweeps onto the stage accompanied by urban jazz, in an excellent sound design by Tom Makar, which evokes American confidence, if not the 1930s. David Dwyer’s set efficiently evokes location while disappearing into the background of the circular Andrews Theatre. Costumes by Jessica Wegrzyn speak character and period perfectly.

The production is a seamless melding of Odets’ remarkable script with a cast that, true to the legacy of The Group, inhabits the play’s large array of characters with sincerity, believability, and passion.

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The vividness of Cameron’s performance is assisted by the fact that the role is a gift. The subtle intricacies of Lorna’s story might speak even more powerfully to today’s post “Me too” audience. But look as well to the skillfully crafted interplay between Arin Lee Dandes and Adam Yellen as Joe’s sister, Anna, and brother-in-law, Siggie, a couple who love each other but fight incessantly.

Oddly, the production veers down an old-fashioned path of more cartoonish portrayals when it enters the boxing world. Comically gifted Jeffrey Coyle seems to have jumped from the pages of Damon Runyon as boxing promoter Roxy Gottlieb. Others come dangerously close in a variety of minor characters. And yet, if we look at the film version of "Golden Boy," made just two years after the play debuted, we see actors performing in exactly this style.

The Group was still evolving, and even the great Lee J. Cobb, who would go on to originate the role of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," seems as authentic in the role of Joe’s Italian father as Geppetto in Disney’s "Pinocchio." Today, the style looks false.

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Any flaws are easily overcome by the virtues of this production. Christian Brandjes is focused and convincing as alternately tyrannical and befuddled Tom Moody, a man’s whose precarious professional life is mirrored by his chaotic personal life. Rolando Martin Gómez gives a performance, aching in its sincerity and authenticity as Joe’s disappointed father. The large cast boasts some of Buffalo’s best talents: Coyle, David Lundy, Steve Jakiel, David Autovino, Eric Rawski, David C. Mitchell and Gerry Maher, with relative newcomer Gabriel Robere.

But to save the best for last, as golden boy Joe Bonaparte, Anthony Alcocer, often called upon for his talent for unbridled outrageousness, here gives a career making turn. He endows the fatally conflicted character with palpable humanity and complexity, in a performance that is grounded and contained, while still projecting an entirely appropriate note of the heroic. He is marvelous.

REVIEW

"Golden Boy"

4 stars (out of four)

Presented by Irish Classic Theatre through Oct. 7 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St. Tickets are $20 to $45. Visit irishclassicaltheatre.com

*Read more: The Buffalo News' guide to the 2018-19 theater season.

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