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NEW YORK — Clifford Odets is widely viewed as a conflicted artist torn between his social idealism and the compromising reality of working in a commercial industry. In his autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller wrote that Odets’ art was “the real cross he bore in a popular culture demanding instant and painless entertainment.” The weight of that cross hangs heavily in his 1949 play The Big Knife, a blunt attack on Hollywood that smacks of a playwright bitterly exculpating himself after a decade spent as a studio-system screenwriter.
While its preachy lack of subtlety makes this drama ultimately less corrosive or shattering than the tragic events that unfold onstage might have been, it’s still fascinating theater, even with imperfectly cast leads. What Doug Hughes’ Broadway revival for Roundabout Theatre Company does have in its corner is three sizzling character turns from gifted actors playing different cogs in the Old Hollywood machinery. As a studio head whose manipulative tactics rival those of a mafia don, Richard Kind’s performance alone is reason to savor this production, his dishonesty so ingrained that he seems bizarrely sincere in his insincerity.
John Lee Beatty’s lavish set is the epitome of cool midcentury modern, a large Beverly Hills living room with a floating staircase, stonework feature walls, an amply stocked bar and dappled light bouncing in off the pool through the French doors. This is the swanky domain of Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), a popular 1940s screen idol with a hidden scandal behind him. The careful cover-up of that incendiary secret has kept Charlie beholden to his employers, and studio boss Marcus Hoff (Kind) is not shy about reminding him of the debt. Full details of the event in question are known only to a handful of people, and partial facts by others, creating intrigue that Odets teases out through much of the action.
In addition to Charlie’s creeping self-disgust and disillusionment, the problem is that his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), the living remnant of his more principled past as an East Coast stage actor, has had it with morally and artistically bankrupt Hollywood. While Marion holes up at the beach house with their young son, a gossip columnist (Brenda Wehle) sniffs around news of their trial separation. An escape avenue presents itself to Marion through the romantic overtures of screenwriter Hank Teagle (C.J. Wilson), who is heading back to New York. But she’s not ready to give up on her husband, forcing him to choose between her and the lucrative multiyear exclusive contract that Huff and his flunkies are strong-arming him to sign.
Most of the conflict revolves around Charlie’s struggle to reclaim his life without hurting anyone. On one side, his avuncular agent, Nat Danziger (Chip Zien), reasons with him that signing is his only option. On the other, Marcus and his ironically named right-hand hatchet man Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers) outline the downside of refusal. Marcus is a man unaccustomed to hearing the word “no.” In a first-act monologue brilliantly performed by Kind, he slow-boils from gentle persuasion through feigned benevolence to coercion, veiled threats and, finally, volcanic wrath. That scene packs such fireworks that the drama never again matches it.
Charlie’s dilemma is further complicated by Connie Bliss (Ana Reeder), the frisky wife of an adoring publicist (Joey Slotnick) who took for the fall for the star’s misdemeanor. Putting two and two together to figure out what really happened, she uses that knowledge to make a move on Charlie. Also closing in is Dixie Evans (Rachel Brosnahan). A young actress put under contract as a stock player to keep her quiet, she is weary of playing hatcheck girls and gets loose-lipped after a few drinks. As Smiley colorfully puts it, “A woman with six martinis can ruin a city.”
Dialogue like that keeps The Big Knife humming, though this melange of film noir, melodrama and inside-Hollywood tale is far from Odets’ finest work. And given the transparency of the playwright’s retaliatory agenda, the jangly jazz poetry and hardboiled banter that can make his language so unique and hypnotic just as often come off as overwritten.
The play is a curiosity piece, and its late-’40s movie-industry milieu is certainly a juicy one. But for Broadway regulars who saw recent productions of Odets’ Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy, superior earlier dramas ennobled by a stirring humanism that’s missing here, the comparison will be unfavorable. Both those revivals were directed by Bartlett Sher, an artist able to penetrate the antiquated shell of a vintage text and get to the heart of its characters and conflicts.
Hughes’ productions, including this one, tend to be less interpretive than efficiently lucid, which only works with a rock-solid play. (He was at his best with John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.) Hughes does a clean job of it here, and the powerful final scenes pack some punch. But the contrived plotting shows its seams.
There are issues with the casting, too. Cannavale is a consistently pleasurable actor to watch, and he looks the part of the Hollywood heartthrob in Catherine Zuber’s as-always impeccable period clothes. But he has a natural lightness, a buoyancy that seems antithetical to Charlie. Cannavale broods convincingly, and in moments of silence the haunted look in his eyes is quite moving. Bleak desperation and crippling guilt don’t come readily to him, though, which undermines the character’s shocking course of action. He’s better when laying on the charm for Wehle’s beady-eyed muckraker, or showing genuine concern even for the agent of his entrapment.
The normally reliable Ireland (Homeland) is an unsatisfying fit here, bringing such muted notes to Marion that she seems numb for much of the action, rather than remaining credibly invested in Charlie’s future life.
Reeder (packed into a come-hither cocktail dress with a spectacular push-up bra) and newcomer Brosnahan (who also played a profiteering floozy on Netflix’s House of Cards) brighten the stage as familiar types of ’40s screen broad. But the main attraction is the knockout triumvirate of Kind’s grinning puppetmaster Marcus, Rogers’ oily facilitator Smiley and Zien’s ingratiating Nat, devastating when he’s finally pushed beyond meek compliance. All three appear to have stepped straight off a long-ago studio backlot.
Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York (runs through June 2)
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Marin Ireland, Richard Kind, Reg Rogers, Chip Zien, Rachel Brosnahan, Billy Eugene Jones, Ana Reeder, Joey Slotnick, Brenda Wehle, C.J. Wilson
Director: Doug Hughes
Playwright: Clifford Odets
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: James F. Ingalls
Music & sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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