On the Ropes: Golden Boys Joe, left, gives up violin strings for boxing gloves. s Joe, left, gives up violin strings for boxing gloves.

Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy was the agitating playwright’s first Broadway hit, in 1937; two years later, its film adaptation marked the screen debut of William Holden, whose four-decade film career stands tall against any actors in his generation. A drama as melo- as they come, Golden Boy found Odets shifting away from the political cargo of his earlier, influential Waiting for Lefty to spin a more personal tale depicting the clash between integrity and material reward. He embodied this polarity in the unlikely character of Joe Bonaparte, a 21-year-old kid with the talent to become a violinist of note, but who chooses instead to chase a payday as a prizefighter, a profession that carries risks far graver than the one Odets is mainly interested in: that Bonaparte might break his hands on some palooka’s mug and sacrifice his future as a musician. His choice breaks the heart of his decent, peace-loving papa, the sort of man who’d cheerfully spend $1,200 in Depression-era dollars to get-a his bambino a really nice-a violin-a. (Critics have written of the musicality of Odets’ dialogue. I can affirm that Signor Bonaparte Senior’s accent is right there in the script.) It’s a schematic premise from the jump—Odets would soon leave New York’s progressive Group Theater to write screenplays in Hollywood—but the show’s favorable reception at the time suggests at least some of the people able to attend Broadway shows during the Great Depression agonized that just maybe their better-than-comfortable living came from the less civilized of the two prodigious talents with which there were blessed. Wait, what? OK, truth: This is a bantamweight drama from a heavyweight dramatist, and it’s hard to figure how it could have seemed any less redonkulous in 1937 than it does now. The best that can be said for Lee Mikeska Gardner’s earnest, hardworking production for the Keegan Theatre is that it’s no clunkier than the play itself. That the chops to be a contender in both sweet science and the symphony could manifest in the same body ought to be something we can accept as mere setup. Unfortunately, the casting only underscores its implausibility: As Joe, John Robert Keena is called upon to shadowbox only a little and to fiddle even less. The most charitable way of assessing his prowess at either endeavor would be to say they make his acting seem credible by comparison. There’s no detectable chemistry between him and Susan Marie Rhea’s wistful Lorna Moon, the sad-eyed Jersey girl who forms the third side of a love triangle with Joe and his philandering, desperate manager (Jim Jorgensen); Joe falls for her apparently because he’s never met another girl in his life. There are compelling characters and performances here, like Bradley Smith’s tightly wound Siggie (Joe’s drunkard, cab-driving brother-in-law), Chuck Young’s steady boxing trainer Tokio, and Mick Tinder as the mobster Eddie Fuseli—a role originated by an ambitious young actor named Elia Kazan. But they’re all stuffed into the margins of George Lucas’ handsome period set, and the show’s tragic denouement manages to feel both so arbitrary and so clumsily foreshadowed as to be laughable. Some members of the cast have a surer grasp on the florid, anachronistic style of Odets’ dialogue than others, but it’s Jorgensen—quite solid in his part, for all the good it does—who gets to utter the salient phrase: phonus balonus.