There's nothing subtle about the story of "Golden Boy," Clifford Odets' drama about a gifted Italian-American kid who gives up his violin for fame and fortune as a prizefighter. There probably was nothing subtle about it when Odets wrote it to be a hit for the Group Theatre in 1937, or when William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the movie two years later. Or when Sammy Davis Jr. did a musical version in 1964.
But subtlety is beside the point at the enormously satisfying anniversary revival at the Belasco Theatre where, 75 years ago, the work's hard-boiled style brought Odets his own uneasy fame and fortune. The point of this Lincoln Center Theater production is the rare opportunity to see a pivotal American period piece staged deeply into the period by Bartlett Sher ("South Pacific") with a huge, expert cast that only a nonprofit can afford to showcase with such luxurious dedication today on Broadway.
Seth Numrich (best friend of the horse in "War Horse") plays Joe Bonaparte, the sensitive son whose hunger for big-time American success makes him choose between a life as "a real sparrow or a fake eagle." In almost three hours, we watch the actor transform physically into a convincing fighting machine and, ultimately, to a barely recognizable monster of sharp edges and shadows.
Yvonne Strahovski, a wonderful Australian actress in her Broadway debut, combines the looks of a young Faye Dunaway with layers of sensitivity and mystery as Lorna, initially the mistress of Joe's manager. Tony Shalhoub has massive sweetness and intelligence as Joe's complicated immigrant father and Danny Burstein offers steadying insight as Joe's trainer.
Sher encourages a few actors to lay on the cultural cliches pretty heavily, but, then again, so did Odets. Mostly, the production combines an exhilarating fast-talking swagger with both Odets' real and overwrought lyricism. Designer Michael Yeargan ingeniously switches multiple locations by sliding sets on a runway against gritty windows on a brick wall. Catherine Zuber's costumes understand both self-respecting poverty and the allure of tacky high-style.
When Joe's brother (Lucas Caleb Rooney), the labor organizer, returns with wounds from a demonstration, Odets makes us think about the difference between working just for money and fighting for something better. So does this production.
WHAT "Golden Boy"
WHERE Belasco Theatre, 111 W. 44th St.
INFO $37-$127; 212-239-6200; lct.org
BOTTOM LINE A '30s revival that's true in style and passion