The Big Knife Review: Hollywood Horrors According to Clifford Odets

The Big Knife with Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale
The Big Knife with Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale

Question: When is the last time a movie star abandoned his lucrative Hollywood career because his wife asked him to?

Answer: More recently than a violinist gave up his music for the chance at being a boxing champ.

“The Big Knife,” which has now opened on Broadway at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater with Bobby Cannavale as the movie star trying to regain his integrity, is the second Clifford Odets play to be revived this season. Its setting is  more familiar to audiences of today than was “Golden Boy.” While both share a theme about moral compromise and spiritual corruption, the one in “The Big Knife” has a more direct connection to the life of the playwright, who left a strikingly successful career in New York theater for a more obscure but better-paying one in Hollywood.

Yet despite a more up-to-date topic and a buzz-worthy cast, “The Big Knife” winds up at best a victim of bad timing, for it suffers in comparison to the Lincoln Center Theater’s production a few months ago of “Golden Boy.”

Does “The Big Knife” seem a let-down after “Golden Boy” because we are more likely to care about a poor boy and his family in the New York of the 1930’s than a rich man and his entourage in a Beverly Hills estate in the late 1940’s? Or is it because the Lincoln Center production of “The Golden Boy” was so fluidly and creatively staged, while the Roundabout’s production of “The Big Knife” feels so stagnant in contrast? I think these are probably both true. It may also be that “The Big Knife” is simply not as good a play.

Still, the Odets touch is evident in the story of Charlie, a Hollywood movie star whose wife Marion (Marin Ireland)  has secretly separated from him because of his philandering, and because she feels he has lost his way. He was alive when he was a stage actor

“You used to grab your theater parts and eat ’em like a tiger. Now you act with droopy eyes–they have to call you away from a card game.”

“…Just what do you expect me to do?…Go back and act in shows?”

“What’s wrong with shows?… The theatre still can give you a reasonable living.“ (This, you can tell, was a while ago.)

“The theater’s a stunted bleeding stump,” he replies. (even then)

He loves her,  and wants to do what she asks. But he is also being pressured to sign a new long-term contract with his movie studio, headed by the smoothly vicious mogul Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind), who never accepts no. Charlie can’t just walk away because of a crime Charlie committed the previous Christmas, a car accident in which he killed a boy and then left the scene – a hit and run. His studio covered for him, arranging for his publicist Buddy (Joey Slotnick) to take the fall and serve ten months in prison. Charlie’s agent Nat (Chip Zien) puts Charlie’s choice succinctly: “You sign or you go to jail.”

The plot turns melodramatic – or tragic, if you prefer – after some tense confrontations, too many lulls, and a swirl of characters visiting the house, the whole concoction sprinkled with a helping of Odets’ snappy dialogue. When Buddy the publicist tries to sweet-talk reigning gossip columnist Patty Benedict (a too-harsh Brenda Wehle) out of pushing Charlie to admit to his marital difficulties, she tells him to shut up: “I want my gossip from the horse’s mouth, not its ass.”

Cannavale seems well-cast as the street-smart but sensitive actor trapped in tough-guy roles — his wife half-jokes, half-laments that he’s been electrocuted four times in his last ten pictures. But his performance is nothing near the amazing force of nature he exhibited in “The MF with the Hat” or even his shrewd salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, a shortcoming that surely is primarily due to the limitations of the role, and perhaps as well to Doug Hughes’s workmanlike direction. Other stand-outs in the 11-member cast Zien as a mensch of an agent and Kind as the studio boss who would like people to think of him as a mensch, but is much closer to a monster.  With his permanent slouch, and matter-of-fact manner, Kind makes his character much more credible than Rod Steiger did in the 1955 film adaptation of Odets play — which, perhaps ironically, Odets didn’t write. (The film, streaming on Netflix, starred Jack Palance and Ida Lupino.) The glimpse that Odets offers into the underside of Hollywood feels genuine, but it is hardly a revelation; there have been more lively and incisive Hollywood horror stories before and since.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes — tennis whites, golden blouses, double-breasted suits, muscle shirts, white shoes – appropriately evoke the glamour and power politics of the play’s place and time. Is it fair to point out that Zuber was also the costume designer for “Golden Boy,” which had costumes that were more varied,  textured and interesting?


The Big Knife

At American Airlines Theater

By Clifford Odets

Doug Hughes (Direction)
John Lee Beatty (Set Design)
Catherine Zuber (Costume Design)
James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design)
David Van Tieghem (Sound Design & Original Music)

Cast: Rachel Brosnahan
Bobby Cannavale
Marin Ireland
Billy Eugene Jones
Richard Kind
Adam Rapp
Ana Reeder
Reg Rogers
Joey Slotnick
Brenda Wehle
Chip Zien

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $42 to $127

The Big Knife is set to close June 2, 2013.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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