Culture Fop / Boxing, Backstabbing and Broadway’s Jewish Golden Boy

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It’s been a big year for Clifford Odets, which is particularly impressive because he died half a century ago. Two of the playwright’s productions, “Golden Boy” and “The Big Knife,” were remounted this year and, when the Tony Award nominations were announced last week, both got some love.

No other writer this year was honored for two different productions, certainly not ones that hail from the first half of the 20th century.

By now, Odets, who was born in 1906 and died in 1963, is safely etched in theater history and widely acknowledged as the man who introduced slangy vernacular and unabashed social activism to the sacred stages of Broadway. But these recent revivals confirm that his messages are still relevant.

Born to immigrant Jewish parents in Philly, Odets was an early member of the highly influential Group Theatre in New York, a collective of actors, writers and directors founded by, among others, Lee Strasberg, who is famous for the “method” approach to acting he passed on to pupils like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. Odets was the Group’s star playwright. 

In 1935, his play “Awake and Sing!” was staged by the Group and quickly became an American classic, now considered by many to be his masterpiece. It follows three generations of the Berger family as they struggle with identity, assimilation, tradition, loyalty and all those other complicated ideas and relationships that define the various waves of European Jewish immigration to America in the early 1900s. 

It has been said that “Awake and Sing!” is the first quintessentially Jewish play produced outside the Yiddish theater ghetto and that the Bergers are the first Jewish family to have taken center stage on the Great White Way.

Odets didn’t just write about his own kind, though. “Golden Boy,” written in 1937 in the wake of his success with “Awake and Sing!” follows an Italian would-be classical violinist who takes up boxing to earn money for his music studies. But the hands that jab and punch may soon be unable to pluck and bow, and therein lies the conflict. Seventy-five years after its premiere, the moral questions Odets poses still haunt us.

“Do you spend your life trying to shine in a world that values only the mighty dollar and the power it brings, or seek instead to fulfill a humbler, more humane destiny?” So asks theater critic Charles Isherwood in a New York Times review published when the revival of “Golden Boy” premiered in December. Isherwood also suggests that the show is actually somewhat autobiographical, a dramatic telling of the conflict between the commercial and the artistic in Odets’ own life.

“Golden Boy” snatched eight Tony nods this year, the most of any play, including best revival of a play and best director. Unfortunately, you can’t see it … it closed at the end of January.

But! Another Odets play, “The Big Knife,” opened a month ago and is still running. The show tells the tale of Charlie Castle, a successful movie star in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, who struggles to stay true to himself in a world of gossip, rumors and relentless backstabbing. It was recognized with a nomination for best featured actor in a play (which basically means best supporting actor). For all the New Yorkers out there, or those paying a visit to the city, it’s worth checking out what the feisty Odets has to say to us today.

Enemies: A bridge from Israeli to American theater

Yiddish New York is the ominous setting of “Enemies, A Love Story,” the classic post-war tale of love and paranoia by Nobel Prize winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Herman Broder, a Holocaust survivor who lands on the shores of America in 1949, finds himself entangled with three women – the Polish maid who helped hide him, his first wife, believed dead but not, and the woman he actually loves. The 1989 film adaptation scored Academy Award nominations for Angelica Houston and Lena Olin.

“Enemies, A Love Story” returns to its original setting when Israel’s Gesher Theater brings its production to the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Cherry Orchard Festival June 6 to 9 in honor of Israel’s 65th birthday.

The Gesher Theater, of course, is the acclaimed Jaffa-based troupe founded in 1991 by a group of Russian immigrants who proudly produce work in both Russian and Hebrew (the New York show will be performed in Hebrew with simultaneous Russian or English translation whispered in your ear by nifty technology).

Gesher, which means “bridge” in Hebrew, has become one of the busiest troupes on the Israeli theater scene, certainly when it comes to international travel – they were most recently in New York at the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival in 2004 with another Singer adaptation, “The Slave.”

It’s unclear what Jazz at Lincoln Center, an organization founded in 1991 to celebrate and promote “America’s music,” wants with an Israeli-Russian theater troupe and the dark humor of a writer like Singer. Calls into the org to get to the bottom of this mystery were not returned, leaving us to guess at the relationship and simply appreciate the unexpected link.

Curtains open at 8 P.M. for the four nights of the festival, with ticket prices ranging from $45 to $135. More information about the production and tickets can be found here.

Broadway, New York City.Credit: Aimee Tyrrell
Jewish playwright Clifford Odets.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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