THE LEADING MEN: Danny Burstein Digs Into a Group Theatre Classic, Golden Boy

By Mervyn Rothstein
05 Dec 2012

Seth Numrich and Burstein in Golden Boy.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Tell me a little about your character, Tokio, the trainer. How do you see him?
DB: He's Joe Bonaparte's trainer. He sees a lot of potential in Joe, not just as a boxer but as a human being. He becomes sort of a father figure to him. He's sort of a cross between Rocky and Yoda — an intelligent boxing trainer, but also this wonderful father figure. He has a special affinity for Joe. He sees him as a son. He tries to guide him, not just in the ring but outside the ring, to be a better person and to make the right choices, not just for his boxing self but for his soul.

Your character has an unusual name — do you see any significance in it?
DB: There are many things I could have made up, but I think it's probably taken from TKO, technical knockout, from that acronym. They made a name out of it, probably when he was a boxer.

The original cast, way back in 1937, when Golden Boy was performed by the legendary Group Theatre, was filled with icons of theatre history — Luther Adler was Joe, Morris Carnovsky was his father, and the rest of the glorious cast included Lee J. Cobb, Jules (later John) Garfield, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan and Robert Lewis. (Tokio was Art Smith, who had many supporting roles in film noir in the 1940s, was later blacklisted and went on to play Doc in the original West Side Story in 1957.) Did you and the rest of the cast think about that, or feel anything about the footsteps you're following in?
Playbill cover from the original Broadway production

DB: Absolutely not — no, I'm kidding! We think about it all the time. This is the theatre where the show premiered 75 years ago. In the basement — there's a very deep two-floor basement underneath the stage, there's just nothing there, it's a huge empty space. It was built by Belasco so Houdini could do his famous elephant trick, where the elephant would disappear. It would drop down two levels. That big enormous space is still there. It's where The Group Theatre used to have their meetings. So if the walls could talk — that cast is all here, in a way, supporting us. At least I hope they are. It has very special significance to us.

We actually listened to a recording of the 1937 production, made about six months into the run. Listening to it, and listening to their voices, and the New York cadences. I was listening specifically to Art Smith, who played Tokio. I was trying to steal everything I could, and then I tried to make it my own.

Yeah, those guys hopefully live on through us, and we don't take anything they did for granted. We always go back to their notes, and the original text. We treat them with great respect.

Is acting Odets different from other playwrights?
DB: For me, whatever the genre I'm doing, whether it be a musical, or Shakespeare, or Odets, or Neil Simon, I always try to approach it from a real place. That's the way I come to the table. I try to make it as real as possible. Even as crazy as Aldolpho was in The Drowsy Chaperone, I understood who that guy was. You try to find out what the parameters of the game are when you come to the table, and then you try to push the envelope as much as possible, and play with it inside that particular box that the director has set up for you. So to me, I think it's all about honesty, no matter what the project is.