How One Painter Inspired Lincoln Center Theater's Revival of “Golden Boy”

How One Painter Inspired Lincoln Center Theater's Revival of “Golden Boy”
A colorized version of Robert Riggs, “One-punch Knockout,” c. 1934 (detail)

In “Golden Boy,” Clifford Odet’s Depression-era classic, protagonist Joe Bonaparte’s spiritual struggle between art and commerce is symbolized between the warmth of the apartment of his immigrant, music-loving Italian father and the gritty world of New York boxing gyms. Will he embrace the civility of the violin or the brutality of the ring? The latter is so vividly evoked in the new Lincoln Center Theater Broadway revival that you can almost smell the stale sweat. A tableau of sparring boxers set against smoke-tinged walls and dusty windows might lead you to think of George Bellows’s classic paintings. Especially if you come to the critically acclaimed play after visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Bellows retrospective (on view through February 18).

Michael Yeargan, who designed the sets for “Golden Boy,” says that it was a black-and-white lithograph by Robert Riggs — entitled “One-punch Knockout” — that became the leitmotif for the production. Colorized, it also became the program cover and the poster for the show, which is directed by Bartlett Sher. “I saw the poster, and I thought the publicity department had found some great guy to design it,” recalls Yeargan. In fact, Riggs, born in 1896, was more of a contemporary of Odets than Bellows, who preceded them both by a generation and who died in 1925. Riggs created “One-punch Knockout” in 1934, three years before the legendary Group Theatre premiered “Golden Boy” on Broadway.  

Seventy-five years later, through Sher’s brilliant production, Odets’s drama still speaks compellingly to Joe Bonaparte’s lust for wealth, fame, and women — no matter the punishment he must take to get it. Yeargan’s set designs, aided by Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Donald Holder’s lighting, deserve some of the credit for the encomiums lavished on the revival. Born in a suburb of Dallas, Yeargan caught the bug early, captivated by the touring Met Opera productions and, particularly, the magic of the sets. He’d try to recreate them at home with his mother’s shoe boxes from Neiman-Marcus. Years later, his several collaborations with Sher have included operas all over the globe, as well as award-winning revivals of Odets’s “Awake and Sing!” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and the Adam Guettel musical “The Light in the Piazza.” Yeargan recently spoke with BLOUIN ARTINFO about “Golden Boy” and the varied artistic influences on his work.

BLOUIN ARTINFO: Why Riggs over Bellows as an inspiration for this production?

Michael Yeargan: We looked at Bellows and his sense of composition — the shape of the bodies, and the way he takes you around the image — is amazing. But in a funny way, Bellows was a little bit more romantic than Riggs, who creates a much more brutalistic world. When I saw the poster from the publicity department, I was blown away...but this was really horrifying in a way. We were still kind of in the design process at the time and the litho even had those windows in the background, which we have in the set. We looked at a lot of paintings, lithographs, and illustrations from that era, and I was especially struck by all that wonderful side light that they throw on the people in them.

What other artists may have influenced you from that period?

We looked at Rockwell Kent, Thomas Hart Benton, and also a lot of Edward Hopper for this. I love the mood that these paintings can create. But these paintings are a means to their own end. It’s hard to lift one and put it on the stage. It’s much easier on film, like in the movie, “Pennies from Heaven,” where they re-created “Nighthawks” and a painting by Reginald Marsh. I actually took my cue more from films, especially the early black and white ones. I’m such a movie freak.

Which ones did you look at for “Golden Boy”?

Well, the boxing ones from the '30s, which had those lights hanging over the rings and the raw factory windows. “Kid Gallahad,” not the Elvis Presley one but the earlier 1937 one. “Body and Soul” with John Garfield. They gave us the impulse for the gym. And for the look under the stadium I was inspired by the Sportatorium in Dallas, which was made of corrugated tin. You sat in these risers and underneath were all these trusses so you get the feeling of being under the grandstand.

What struck me was the eroticism of the production, especially the splashes of color against the black and gray backgrounds?

Cathy [the costume designer] is also a big film buff. It’s a large part of our vocabulary when we start on projects. The colors she chose for this production was the way they bounced off the grayness of the set. It’s no accident that Lorna [Joe’s love interest] sits on a red sofa in the office in a reddish-orange dress. I should add that I’m a huge fan of Fellini and Visconti movies, which have influenced me.  “Senso” [by Visconti] was just restored, and it is so stunningly sensual, romantic, and theatrical. I think any designer who doesn’t know Visconti and Fellini should just be kicked out of the profession.