Keep your eye on Nate Santana, the star of Griffin Theatre's muscular yet heartfelt revival of Clifford Odets' "Golden Boy."
Santana's intense, marvelously authentic performance as a man who sacrifices his art (and soul) for security and fame, suggests a champion in the making. The actor, whose Chicago-area credits include First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook, heads up director Jonathan Berry's large cast made up of first-rate character actors. Among them is Nina O'Keefe, who delivers a knockout performance as a quintessential tough cookie.
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"Golden Boy"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Griffin Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 975-8150 or griffintheatre.com or theaterwit.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday through April 6
Tickets: $28; $33
Running time: About 2 hours, 35 minutes with two intermissions
Parking: Metered street parking
Rating: For adults; includes mature themes
The story tiptoes around melodrama, and there is nothing subtle about Odets' writing in this 1937 drama about a man who must chose between the concert hall and the boxing ring. But Odets' period patois is engaging and flawlessly delivered in Berry's lean, mean revival.
Steering clear of sentiment, Berry skillfully crafts quietly powerful, sometimes prolonged moments and well-considered transitions that reveal not just the characters, but the relationships between those characters. Ultimately, the strength of Griffin's "Golden Boy" rests largely with the potent acting -- particularly in scenes between Santana and O'Keefe, who both bring real weight to the roles.
We're introduced first to prizefighter manager Moody (Mark Pracht, as a tough-talking, decent guy). His subpar stable of prizefighters lose more often than they win, which means he can't come up with the $5,000 he needs to divorce his wife and marry his longtime mistress, Jersey-girl Lorna (expertly conjured by O'Keefe), who works as his Gal Friday.
Into Moody's office bursts Joe Bonaparte, played by the ever-credible Santana, conveying the hurt and insecurity behind the character's youthful impertinence. The 21-year-old aspiring prizefighter is looking for a manager. And after some verbal sparring, Moody agrees to take him on. Joe quickly makes a name for himself in the ring despite a tendency to pull his punches, which trainer Tokio (played with no-nonsense compassion by Jason Lindner) correctly attributes to Joe's attempts to protect his hands.
There's a reason for that. Joe also happens to be a gifted violinist who has been training since childhood for a music career his father (deftly played by Norm Woodel) wants him to pursue. Carp (Jerry Bloom), the elder Bonaparte's friend, doubts Joe can earn a living playing music.
"Could the Muses put bread and butter on the table?" he asks.
Meanwhile Joe -- having forsaken his art and passion to pursue fame and money -- joins up with Moody and blustering promoter Roxy (the comically uncouth John Connolly). The trio becomes a quartet when a mobster named Eddie (played by David Prete with a cool menace that sends a shiver up the spine) purchases a piece of Joe, upsetting the not-so-delicate balance.
As his boxing career takes off, Joe drifts away from his family and from music. Still, he has no passion for prizefighting, as the perceptive Tokio notes.
"Your heart ain't in fighting ... your hate is," says Tokio. "But a man with hate and nothing else ... is half a man."
That said, Joe reserves most of his passion for Lorna, whose hard-boiled exterior and deeply wounded soul O'Keefe conveys in a self-aware, cliche-free performance.
While less overtly political than Odets' previous plays "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing," "Golden Boy" still offers rather pointed social commentary about how relinquishing true passion can imperil one's soul. We see the effect in the raw, truthful performances of Santana and O'Keefe. Bravo.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the resources to pursue their passion exclusively, not when they have to put bread and butter on the table. Fortunately, the folks at Griffin Theatre, along with hundreds of small theater companies in the city and suburbs, seem to have figured out a way to balance financial security with their artistic pursuits.