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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Big Knife
by Elyse Sommer
Revivals of plays that were once major hits are tricky because directors and cast are invariably haunted by comparisons to the productions that contributed towards the play's success. Revivals of plays that weren't hits to begin with face the burden of questions about whether they should have been dusted off and brought out of the attic. On the other hand, they also hold out the challenge of finally coming into their own thanks to being newly relevant and ripe for a fresh modern interpretation.
The revival of Clifford Odets' 1949 play The Big Knife which opened on 6/18 at the Williamstown Theater Festival's Nikos Stage, is a case in point. Like Odets' passionate social protests of the 1930s, The Big Knife also had an agenda -- but in this case his target was Hollywood where he had just spent nine years as a script writer and became intimately acquainted (and disgusted) with the movie studios' hypocrisy and corruptive influence on idealistic and creative individuals. His main character was just such a compromised idealist -- a movie star who has compromised his beliefs to become rich, famous and miserable both in his personal life and his work. But when he tried to get out of signing another long-term contract with a ruthless Hollywood studio, he finds himself entrapped by a moral misstep taken years earlier.
Even John Garfield as the hard-drinking corrupted writer failed to provide Odets with a hoped for triumphant return to the theater. The Big Knife ran for just 108 performances.
Yet insider Hollywood exposes have become something of a genre that refuses to quit. This past season alone saw three such plays in well-known Off-Broadway houses (linked at end of this review). Since one of the criticisms leveled against The Big Knife in 1949 was that it was "too overwrought", the attention given to Craig Lucas' very melodramatic A Dying Gaul, (one critic declared it to be the best play he'd seen all year), would indeed indicate that The Big Knife might well be a play ripe for a new look. Joanne Woodward who has already directed Odets' two most famous plays, Waiting for Lefty (for Blue Lights Theatre Company in New York) .and Golden Boy (for WTF), she is the ideal director to undertake the challenge.
So how does The Big Knifehold up under Ms. Woodward's direction?
For those who, like me, saw the most recent spate of Hollywood plays,(as well as David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow and movies like The Player), it is an interesting artifact that's been overwhelmed by this genre's very success. The serious and seriously ignored writer, the anger, the Faustian bargaining, the dissolution of relationships -- it all smacks of been there, seen that.
Still, given Odets gift for projecting a swift sense of reality through dialogue that is not so much stage talk as the razor-sharp, lifelike expression of real people's thoughts and actions, we are at the end left with a sense of having experienced at least some of the surging power of the playwright's earlier and better plays. Since Ms. Woodward has chosen to present the play "as is" -- with all three hours, three acts and two intermissions intact -- the satisfactions of that final act come at the price of enduring an interminably lethargic first act and an only slightly less rambling middle act.
Unfortunately, too, much of the best dialogue fails to make the impact it should. About half the actors Ms. Woodward has assembled to re-tell this particular version of the familiar tale, fail to clearly project their lines even in this tiny theater where the last row is equivalent to the best house seats in a large Broadway house. That includes Scott Cohen who plays Charlie Castle the main character who wants out from the Hollywood life which has enabled him to "live like a Rajah" but failed to bring him personal or career satisfaction.
Mr. Cohen, who bears a strong resemblance to Al Pacino, (a fact heavily underscored by his hair style and mannerisms), all too often makes the audience struggle to catch his words and hasn't been directed to work with a thrust stage to downplay excessive back-to-the-audience moments. Most egregiously, his performance fails to capture our sympathy. To be fair, this last is largely attributable to the playwright's writing him a part filled with kvetching about "yearning for a world with people to bring out the best in him" without ever getting a handle on how it's up to him to stop his self-destructive behavior.
Dana Reeve as Charlie's wife Marion and social conscience, does the best she can with a part written more as a mouthpiece for the playwright than a real flesh and blood woman. Michael Pemberton convincingly portrays the author's stand-in, the writer who tries to rescue Marion (and Charlie) from the morass; as does Bruce McVittie, as his opposite-- an underling who will shake hands with the devil if need be. However, McVittie, like Cohen, has line delivery problems. John Braden is competent as a Hollywood agent who, like Charlie, would like to be better than he is.
The standout performances come from Richard Kind as the appropriately slimy wicked studio mogul, and come from Tracy Middendorf as the Hollywood wannabe who's at the heart of the dramatic arc. The role she plays is a by now cliche Marilyn Monroe dumb-blonde type yet she manages to plumb it for all its potential for comic pathos. Too bad she's on stage for such a short time.
Mimi O'Donnell's costumes are right on the button in capturing the time and Michael Schweikardt furnishes the pale beige and grey set (its sterility a metaphor for the sterility of Hollywood?) with paintings equally appropriate to the era. Instead of that staircase used primarily for the end-of-act exits, it would have been more effective to throw open the drapes and give us some sort of projection of the tennis courts and surrounding houses. Instead, actors are forced to awkwardly peek out and enter through a lifted edge.
Ironically while The Big Knife remains the overwritten, overwrought play that has kept it one of Odets' minor works, it was successful in the very town it attacked. The 1955 Robert Aldrich movie has become something of a cult movie along with other insider Hollywood stories like Sunset Boulevard. It featured Jack Palance as Charlie; also Ida Lupino, Wendell Corey, Jean Hagen, Shelley Winters, Rod Steiger and Ilka Chase). But then, not being a purist, Aldrich was not afraid to trim the story to 111 minutes while adding to the edgy anger and introducing a narrator.
Perhaps next time Ms. Woodward takes on Odets, she should borrow a page out of Aldrich's book and leave some of Odets' pages on the cutting room floor.
LINKS TO RELATED PLAYS:
Names about a crisis in the lives of the leading members of the Group Theater which made Odets a Star
Waiting For Lefty
The Dying Gaul
Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks" Once In a Lifetime