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A CurtainUp Review
The Big Knife
By Elyse Sommer
Given Odets' unflattering take on Hollywood, it took a while for the film version to find a home. It finally did at United Artists as a smartly trimmed production with Jack Palance deliciously tormented and passionate as Charlie Castle and a terrific support cast. That film bristled with enough tension to offset the over-the-top finale. It fared a lot better than the stage version — at least after being honored by at the 1955 Venice Film Festival which turned it into a cult classic.
It's easy to see why the Roundabout Theatre folks wanted to revive The Big Knife despite it's being one of Odets' lesser plays. Given the film's durability as a golden oldie favorite and the very positive critical and audience response to recent revivals of Odets' first big hit Golden Boy and before that Awake and Sing , this seemed a good time to give The Big Knife the Broadway success that eluded it originally.
The company has certainly thrown all its resources into the production to make this happen. But can a well respected director, a fine cast headed by a charismatic actor and top of the line production values make this late and lesser play achieve posthumous hit status on Broadway?
Director Doug Hughes evokes the noirish sensibility with a clever filmic voiceover to transition between the conflated first and second act. This cuts about a half an hour from the original 3 hours-2 intermission production. That's mot enough, however, to keep the story from moving toward its all too predictable and melodramatic ending as briskly as the 111-minute film did.
Hughes does seem to have made some script edits besides eliminating one intermission. Most noticeably the length of contract Charlie is pressured to sign has been doubled from the seven years traditional during this studio mogul ruled era — probably to make Charlie's signing it even more part of his Faustian bargain with the studio head. Too bad these edits didn't include more trimming.
Bobby Cannavale as the once idealistic actor corrupted by drink and Hollywood success has the looks to make you see why his wife keeps addressing him as "Handsome." Yet he never really makes us buy into the way Charlie deals with the crisis in his tarnished "Cinderella" life. Cannavale has proved himself a fine actor so perhaps he shouldn't be blamed for the play's shortcomings and without a film's freedom to expand the setting and deepen tense conversations with emotion stirring closeups and musical accompaniment.
John Lee Beatty's airy true-to-the-era living room with its modern paintings and circular staircase certainly has all the earmarks of a movie star's mansion. Yet with the action confined to interchanges between the almost always on stage Cannavale and the various other characters, even that handsome set eventually feels more confining than grand — leaving some audience members wishing they could help themselves to a drink from that well-stocked bar.
Despite the absence of a magic bullet to transform The Big Knife so that it can be moved the top rung of Odets' theater work, this revival has more than a few pleasurable moments. Chief among them are the numerous smart verbal tidbits. There's Charlie telling his disgusted with LaLa land wife Marion (Marin Ireland) "You swat the fly from my nose with a hammer" and greeting her comment that he could go back to his early days as a stage actor with "The theatre’s a stunted bleeding stump. Even stars have to wait years for one decent play." (This last got a big, knowing laugh at the performance I attended).
There's also the pleasure of watching a large cast, all of whom make the most of their somewhat underdeveloped parts. Marin Ireland who can always be counted on for a vivid performance looks stunning in Catherine Zuber's late '40s outfits. She does her usual best as Marion even though her character was written mostly as the playwright's mouthpiece. The same is true for Charlie and Marion's writer friend Hank Teagle (C. J. Wilson), her wannabe future husband. Hank, unlike Charlie, has remained true to himself and was much more on scene in the film.
Chip Zien, who played in another Odets, revival, The Country Girl, is excellent as Charlie's devoted business manager, but also an all too eager to please toady to the powerful Huff. Brenda Wehle is fine in her one scene as the gossip columnist who first hints at the story's dark secret which is bound to resurface and explode. Joey Slotnick, Anna Reader and Rachel Brosnahan do well during appearances that are no more than cameos even though their characters are crucial to the plot's dark secret: Slotnick as the fall guy for that critical event, Reader as his disloyal and hot for Charlie wife and Brosnahan as a standard issue dumb blonde starlet with a dangerously loose tongue.
The really major highlights of the two and a half hours come whenever the play's two bad guys come on stage, Richard Kind as the malevolent mogul and Reg Rogers as his sidekick Smiley Coy. Rogers' Smiley is much more akin to a mobster operative than Wendell Corey was in the film, which isn't a bad thing given Rogers'portrayal. Kind previously shone in this role in an otherwise so-so production of the play I saw in Williamstown fifteen years ago. He too is different from the film's movie mogul (Rod Steiger played the part with campy histrionics), which again isn't a bad thing since Kind is terrific.
While Brosnahan's Dixie Evans tells Charlie "I'd much rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer" The Big Knife works best when Cannavale's Charlie is visited by the villainous producer and his sleek operative.
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