I'd rather watch a play with a group of New York teenagers than with any audience in the world, and yesterday's student matinee of "Golden Boy," organized by LCT's Open Stages Education Program, again provided reasons why. Here's one: as I made my way up the aisle after the show's second act, in which we had been treated to such names of boxers as The Baltimore Chocolate Drop and in which Lorna Moon, the story's beaten-down lead female, had described herself as "a tramp from Newark," I heard a girl, brushing past me, say to her friend, "The Tramp from Newark wouldn't last two rounds against A Bitch from the Bronx."
I'm used to hearing strong opinions at student matinees. In fact, I have to confess they are one of the reasons I attend. Although I am sure there are kids in the audience who appreciate the subtleties of Odets -- or Beckett or Pinter or Shakespeare -- the reactions to character and situation tend to be less nuanced, more visceral. Even so, I have rarely heard a response as raw as that in the second act of "Golden Boy," when Joe Bonaparte, with whose affections Lorna has been toying, even as she is planning to marry Joe's manager, Tom Moody, strides up to Lorna and throws hundreds of dollars of cash in her face. Cheers and hollers greeted Joe. Being torn between two lovers may be an existential dilemma with which adult audiences can sympathize, but to New York kids Lorna was a two-timing tootsie. They weren't having any.
If the response to Joe dissing Lorna was electric, the reaction to the pair's first scene alone together, on a park bench in act one, was hushed. Well, almost: A girl and boy behind me whispered along with the words. I wasn't surprised by this, because Kati Koerner, Director of Education, had told me before the performance that one of the three classroom sessions that the students had had in preparation for the matinee had focused on the Joe-Lorna interchange. The other lessons had dealt with Bonaparte family dynamics and with boxing.
At the post-show talk-back, in which the actors sat on the stage and answered questions posed by students in the audience and orchestrated by Alexandra Lòpez, Associate Director of Education, boxing popped up as a subject. Someone wanted to know what was symbolized by Joe's breaking a hand during a bout. "It means that for him there's no going back," replied Seth Numrich, who plays the character.
As is often the case, the student questions had to do with the nuts and bolts of acting. "In real life, are you like your characters in the play?" asked one boy. "Yes," answered Michael Aronov, who plays Joe's brother-in-law, Siggie. "I'm home all the time." Another student wanted to know if the wine drunk by the characters is authentic. "No," replied Danny Burstein, who portrays Joe's trainer, Tokio. "It's juice and weak tea and I can't remember what else."
I heard a boy sitting behind me ask his friend how the actors stay in character when faced with a boisterous audience. "Ask the actors, ask the actors," the buddy replied. The boy couldn't screw up the courage to do so, and I have to confess I'm not sure that I, who spend my life watching performers, could have supplied an adequate explanation. At least not at the Belasco during the "Golden Boy" matinee. The spirits were sufficiently high to throw off an actor unused to that level of response. "I bet Joe and Lorna won't forget our performance," a student said confidently on the way out. Indeed.
And now I'd like to provide the roll call of schools that sent students to this week's matinee. They deserve to be named!
Flushing High School
High School for Environmental Studies
High School for Health Professions
Lower East Side Preparatory High School
Marble Hill School for International Studies
MLK for Law, Advocacy & Community Justice
Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers
Professional Performing Arts High School
Vanguard High School
William E. Grady High School
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.