By: David Sheward
To cover a scene change during the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of The Big Knife, Clifford Odets’s 1948 cynical drama of Hollywood’s Golden Age, sound designer David Van Tieghem has created a marvelous audio parody of a typical period movie, headlined by the fictional protagonist, hot star Charlie Castle. It’s meant to be melodramatic, unlike the savagely realistic action of the play which chronicles Charlie’s struggle between his art and the soulless commerce of Tinseltown. This is a common theme in Odets, particularly in his earlier Golden Boy, revived earlier this season, in which the forces of refined classical music and brutal moneymaking battle within the compact frame of violinist-boxer Joe Bonaparte.
The trouble is the play is as hokey as any assembly-line flick churned out by Marcus Hoff, the tyrannical studio head who is Charlie’s main nemesis. Odets has many valid points about the box-office-driven nature of America’s film industry and the country in general, which are even more pertinent in today’s multimillion-dollar movie biz. But he cheapens his purist views with a stale-even-for-1948 plot gimmick.
Charlie is under pressure from Hoff to renew his contract for a hefty salary, but the actor, who yearns to make quality films, will be forced to perform Hoff’s dreck for 14 years. The star’s idealistic wife, Marian, threatens to leave him if he signs. That should be strong enough-the temptation of several millions versus starving for your art, with the love of a good woman thrown in. But Hoff blackmails Charlie with releasing the truth about a hit-and-run accident in which the actor caused the death of a child. When a gabby starlet with knowledge of the secret threatens to spill the beans, things get pretty ugly rather quick. Charlie pompously compares himself to Macbeth and Hamlet, as Hoff and his minions involve their star and his wife in darker doings, finally ending with an over-the-top finish worthy of the schmaltzy Warner Bros. epic.
Fortunately, Doug Hughes’s production is tight and honest, gorgeously realized by John Lee Beatty’s elegant set and Catherine Zuber’s stylish costumes, and the cast plays the hokey plot truthfully. Bobby Cannavale and Marin Ireland underplay Charlie and Marian’s earnest integrity, but they cannot overcome Odets’s soapy excesses and contrived dialogue. "Could you ever know I yearned for a world of people to bring out the best in me," Charlie proclaims toward the end. Who talks like that?
Given the delicious nastiness of Odets’s venom toward the movie industry, the villains get the choicest parts. Richard Kind dives into the Sam Goldwyn-like Hoff with relish. Reg Rogers is a slithering snake as Hoff’s henchman, the ironically named Smiley Coy. Brenda Wehle makes the gossip columnist Patty Benedict a fearsome force with a hatchet for a tongue. They do their best to sharpen this Knife, but it’s still got an old, dull blade.
April 28, 2013
Apr. 16-June 2. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. $42-127. (212) 719-2120.