The darker side of mid-20th-century Hollywood glamour found movie stars struggling to retain their identities and souls despite the iron grip of the all-powerful studio and publicity machines. Perversions and crimes that would reflect badly on their wholesome public images were routinely covered up for the sake of the studios' revenues.
Being true to oneself is a key issue in Clifford Odets' dark play, "The Big Knife," written in 1948 during the flush of postwar success, when America's focus turned toward capitalism. A strong, noirish production starring Bobby Cannavale opened Tuesday night on Broadway, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.
Doug Hughes stages repeated dynamic moments during the period drama, smartly retaining much of Odets' stilted yet colorful dialogue. The more seasoned cast members relish their opportunities to melodramatically sneer, flounce and bluster as required.
Odets' popular early plays promoted social justice, including "Waiting for Lefty," and "Awake and Sing!" His drama "Golden Boy" about a violinist drawn to the big money of boxing, enjoyed a Broadway revival earlier this season. "The Big Knife" hasn't been produced as much as those plays, but the fine ensemble in this Roundabout production brings new life to the age-old story of artists trapped by the glitter of commercial success.
Cannavale charismatically portrays flashy, popular leading man Charlie Castle, who feels ensnared by his success as a cartoonish action-adventure performer. Cannavale sensitively enacts Charlie's inner doubts about how he may have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune, while reciting Odets' overblown language with increasing brio.
Charlie ruefully refers to himself in the third person, as when he tells his estranged wife, "Listen, monkey, I know I'm a mechanical, capering mouse. But Charlie Cass is still around in dribs and drabs - don't you think he'd like to do a fine play every other year? Don't you think I want our marriage to work?"
Richard Kind gives a dynamic performance as mega-maniacal studio executive Marcus Hoff. To Hoff, manipulating his employees' lives is his perfect right, and even ordering a murder to protect his interests is all in a day's work. Kind forcefully imbues Hoff with unctuous, impassioned self-confidence and a callous disregard for humanity.
Marin Ireland has a difficult role as Charlie's brutally frank, emotionally exhausted wife Marion. Ireland is so naturalistic an actress that she can't always pull off the artifice in the dialogue, as when calling Charlie "Husband dear" or "Handsome." However, she's quite moving and effective when Marion is speaking honestly with her husband.
The excellent supporting cast includes Brenda Wehle, a malevolent delight as scandal-sniffing gossip columnist Patty Benedict. Joey Slotnick brings underlying despair to the role of Buddy Bliss, Charlie's nervous but loyal publicity manager. Chip Zien warmly enacts Nat Danziger, a sincere, longtime father figure to Charlie and Marion, while Reg Rogers wears a smarmy air as ironically-named Smiley Coy, who executes Hoff's every controlling whim.
The dark secret hidden by Charlie and his various handlers dominates the final, melodramatic scenes, when Charlie ruminates bleakly, "This whole movie thing is a murder of the people."
Adding to the general air of decadence are Ana Reeder, exuding heat as Buddy's voluptuous, immoral wife, and Rachel Brosnahan as a naively impudent, blackmailing starlet. C.J. Wilson makes a brief but notable appearance as Marion's solid, idealistic lover, and Billy Eugene Jones is discreetly effective as a loyal servant to the Castles.
Odets was a left-wing New Yorker eventually transplanted to Hollywood, where he churned out scripts within the Hollywood studio system. While he surely enjoyed skewering the power and immorality of studio executives in "The Big Knife," he also probably heard about some real-life scandals that may inform this cynical play.
John Lee Beaty's set is an elegantly handsome, airy Los Angeles living space, and Catherine Zuber's often-glamorous dresses and sharp suits add to the glossy period atmosphere. "Try to be happy - this isn't a Russian novel," Charlie playfully tells Buddy. But by the dramatic conclusion, it's clear that Odets' script was informed both by sensational tabloid headlines and the tragic hubris found in great Russian literature.
Following Lincoln Center’s sterling winter revival of Clifford Odets’ sturdy 1937 boxing saga “Golden Boy,” spring brings his 1949 Tinseltown potboiler “The Big Knife.” In the Roundabout’s rusty redo, the play emerges as a blunt instrument that could have stayed in a drawer.
Odets covers the same self-informed themes in each work — ambition, corruption, lost ideals. “The Big Knife” views that mashup in B-movie terms. That heightened state is fine. But what’s hard-boiled about Doug Hughes’ staging is the sulfurous scent of a show that never gels.
The usually reliable Bobby Cannavale (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) growls like Humphrey Bogart and, like the whole cast, seems adrift. He plays Charlie Castle, a rich and famous movie star who’s over Hollywood. Ditto his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), who’s threatened him with divorce if he renews his contract. Why Charlie wants out and what his Plan B is aren’t fully explored.
Meantime, rock-ribbed studio head Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) and his spineless lackey, Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), scheme to keep cash-cow Charlie. That means blackmail. Turns out Charlie mowed down a kid with his car.
That fatal mishap conveniently involves Charlie’s pal, Buddy (Joey Slotnick), and his horny wife, Connie (Ana Reeder), and sexy starlet Dixie (Rachel Brosnahan), who eyewitnessed the auto wreck.
For 2 1/2 hours, the play goes through melodramatic motions and leads to an out-of-character conclusion. The show’s best asset is Charlie’s droolworthy home — an airy California castle designed by John Lee Beatty. For cheaper real-estate porn, read a shelter magazine.
Clifford Odets' “The Big Knife” is about disillusion and compromise, but it’s not a pity party. Fueled by Odets’ loathing for Hollywood, this hard-boiled 1949 play packs a wallop.
At least it does on the page, and on the screen — the 1955 film adaptation starring Jack Palance, Rod Steiger and Ida Lupino crackles with violent, nasty energy.
The handsome Roundabout production that opened last night, on the other hand, pulls its punches — unlike the recent revival of Odets’ boxing drama, “Golden Boy.”
This is all the more disappointing since the show stars Bobby Cannavale, who usually brings an intense physicality to his roles, whether in Broadway’s “The Motherf * * ker With the Hat” or on TV’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Here, though, it’s as if he’s afraid to conform to type and fully play up the inner turmoil of Charlie Castle, a popular movie star.
Charlie’s contract is up for renewal, but he’s getting fed up with the pressure of being a leading man. His high-minded wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), wants them to resume a normal life, and will dump him if he signs up again. But studio head Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind), a power-mad bully, threatens to reveal Charlie’s role in a hit-and-run if he doesn’t re-enlist for another 14 years.
“He gave me an appetizing name, and now he thinks he’ll eat me!” complains the man formerly known as Charles Cass.
“The Big Knife” is packed with such deliciously pungent lines, delivered by characters out of noir central casting.
“You hurt me, darling,” purrs Connie Bliss (Ana Reeder), the buxom wife of Charlie’s milquetoast publicist friend. “I wish I could say I didn’t like it — I’m a naughty girl.”
And, as Hoff’s lethal henchman, Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), coolly observes: “A woman with six martinis can ruin a city.”
But only occasionally does real tension fill set designer John Lee Beatty’s beautiful Hollywood-modern living room. When Hoff drops by to pressure Charlie, director Doug Hughes has the two men sit on opposite sides of the vast stage. This smothers the drama, at least until Kind’s burly Hoff finally gets up and throws his weight around.
Similarly, we hardly feel Charlie’s erotic pull on Marion, which is important because she keeps leaving, only to come right back into her husband’s well-toned arms.
The play moves along at a reasonably fast clip, and Odets paints a fascinating portrait of Hollywood as a machine that destroys people, marriages and ideals. Too bad the production only gives us a partial view, a CinemaScope movie seen on a computer screen.
Being a movie star these days definitely has its drawbacks. The paparazzi who swarm whenever you approach a Starbucks. The brutal scrutiny of those red-carpet choices. The tweet that never dies.
But to my knowledge no current luminary has had to wrestle with a question of complicity in murder, the ugly problem facing Charlie Castle, the Hollywood star at the center of Clifford Odets’s 1949 drama, “The Big Knife,” which opened on Broadway at the American Airlines Theater on Tuesday night in a sluggish, soulless revival starring the talented Bobby Cannavale as the angst-eaten Charlie.
The man is certainly no saint. He cheats on his wife as casually as he swills booze and flits around the backyard tennis court. He let a good friend take the rap — and go to prison — after Charlie accidentally killed a child while driving drunk. But when the studio boss and his henchman begin to hint about arranging the death of the starlet who could expose the truth of that fatal night, Charlie’s moral fiber, limp as overcooked spaghetti after years of self-indulgence, suddenly stiffens.
First produced with John Garfield in the central role and Lee Strasberg directing, and later made into a movie with Jack Palance, “The Big Knife” works over themes that Odets explored with more cogency and urgency in his 1937 play, “Golden Boy,” which was revived earlier this season in a propulsive production from Lincoln Center Theater.
In that play, a young man from the rough streets of New York is torn between a lucrative career as a prizefighter and a desire to pursue his early dream of becoming a violinist. Here the conflict between the allure of worldly success and the deeper satisfactions of the soul is dramatized in the balmy climes of Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system, when big stars were held prison in their gilded cages by ironclad contracts. (The set designer John Lee Beatty has certainly come up with a comfy cage for Charlie to prowl around in: cool glass, rough stone, rich wood and plush midcentury modern furniture.)
As “The Big Knife” begins, the studio chief Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) is not so patiently waiting for Charlie to sign a new contract, pledging himself to the studio for another 14 years, a cruel yoke that still comes with a $3.5 million guarantee. Charlie can’t seem to make up his mind, although his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), knows where she stands. She’s already left Charlie to camp out at the beach house with their young son, and makes her disgust at Hollywood and its filthy lucre blindingly apparent.
“If you sign, you sink in even deeper than before,” she admonishes him. “Refuse to sign, Charlie.”
Mr. Cannavale, the ferociously talented actor whose performance as a recovering addict in Stephen Adly Guirgus’s play “The _______ With the Hat” was so intense you could practically feel the sweat of his character’s anxiety on your own skin, seems ideally cast as Charlie. His sinewy, muscular good looks are precisely those of an actor typecast as a Bogart-style tough. He has a nice feel for Odets’s tart period slang too.
Sloshing whiskey into a glass no matter the hour of day or night, Mr. Cannavale persuasively transmits Charlie’s need to anesthetize himself. After brusquely signing the contract under implied threats of having the truth about the accident exposed, Charlie falls indifferently into bed with Connie Bliss (Ana Reeder), the wife of his good friend Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick), the very man who went to prison so Charlie’s career wouldn’t be jeopardized. Charlie may be a moral mouse, but he’s a champ at acting out his self-disgust.
But perhaps because Odets was returning to deeply personal themes he’d explored before — and doubtless discussed ad nauseam with his analyst — “The Big Knife” lacks the intensity of his best work, and the stakes are drawn so bluntly that there’s not much room for nuance. For the play to hold our attention across three acts (it’s performed here with one intermission), we need to feel the teeth marks as Charlie gnaws away at his innards. Confoundingly, given the high-voltage performances he has given before, Mr. Cannavale only intermittently radiates the anguished sense of a man gradually flaying himself from the inside.
It probably doesn’t help that there’s nary a spark of real feeling between Charlie and the woman he keeps professing to love. Ms. Ireland (“reasons to be pretty”) looks swell in Catherine Zuber’s stylish period costumes, but she’s flagrantly miscast as Marion. Instead of a loving wife trying desperately to help her husband regain his ethical bearings by leaving Hollywood behind — the vulgarity of the movie business is baldly contrasted with the high aesthetic virtues of the, ahem, theater — Ms. Ireland’s Marion evinces the stiff disapproval of a teacher disappointed in her prize student.
The director, Doug Hughes, does elicit some strong work from the sizable supporting cast. As Charlie’s upstanding agent, Nat Danziger, Chip Zien nails the period style and infuses his character with an affectingly careworn quality: he’s as tortured as anyone else by his participation in the ugly deal made to keep Charlie’s career alive.
Reg Rogers as Hoff’s aide-de-camp, Smiley Coy, oozes the easygoing loucheness of a professional Hollywood fixer, his reptilian friendliness barely masking cold professionalism. As the starlet who was in the car with Charlie on the fatal night, and whose martini-wetted lips are getting a little too loose, Rachel Brosnahan makes a strong impression in her one scene, alternately badgering Charlie with vague threats and simpering prettily, a lonely sex kitten who just wants a playmate.
And Mr. Kind, best known for his comic performances, is terrific as Hoff, equal parts mensch and monster, at least until he’s pushed to the edge, and the brutal half wins out. When Hoff and Charlie finally bare their teeth at each other in the last act, the stage begins to simmer with the tension that has been missing for most of the evening.
But ultimately this Roundabout Theater Company production, which marks the first Broadway revival of “The Big Knife,” doesn’t argue persuasively for its enduring merits. Even Mr. Cannavale cannot make Charlie’s overblown speechifying sound like anything other than what it is: Odets in soapbox mode, chewing away with gusto on the Hollywood hand that had been feeding him for some time.
“Isn’t every human being a mechanism to them?” Charlie asks — rhetorically, needless to say — of the corrupt players who grease the moviemaking machinery. “Don’t they slowly, inch by inch, murder everyone they use? Don’t they murder the highest dreams and hopes of a whole great people with the movies they make? This whole movie thing is a murder of the people. Only we hit them on the heads under the hair — nobody sees the marks.”
“The Big Knife” unhappily proves that talented playwrights can swing a cudgel just as loosely. You leave this disappointing production feeling every one of the resulting bruises.
In December, Broadway luxuriated in a muscular revival of "Golden Boy," a pivotal 1937 period piece that brought Clifford Odets his first uneasy fame and fortune as a New York playwright with a conscience. Three years later, Odets went Hollywood and, by the time he wrote "The Big Knife" in 1949, he was both seduced and self-disgusted by his cushy, spirit-crushing life in the studio system.
He had reason for concern. "Big Knife" ran only three months, despite John Garfield as Charlie Castle, Odets' idealized stand-in, a studio megastar torn between honor and the big time. Revived for the first time, now with Bobby Cannavale as what a character aptly describes as an "exuberant brooder," this is a mess of a morality melodrama -- overwritten and under-nuanced, wallowing in classic pact-with-the-devil conflict in the style of late-night scandal-sheet noir.
And I'm not a bit sorry to have seen it. It is hard to know if any director could have made "Big Knife" seem less overwrought or made Odet's huge mouthfuls of polysyllabic words flow with less self-consciousness than Doug Hughes manages in this lavish production. I've decided not to blame him.
Cannavale, who practically stole "Glengarry Glen Ross" from Al Pacino late last year, is riveting in everything he plays these days. His Charlie, debauched yet strangely sweet, wrestles suavely with the character's contradictions and inner demons as studio bosses blackmail him into signing for another 14 years. The actor seems awfully modern, but we can almost believe that Charlie isn't really a philandering phony. The poor dashing darling is just weak.
Marin Ireland has a lithe, accessible dignity as Charlie's longtime wife, who threatens to leave if he signs the contract. But the real period style comes from the character actors. Richard Kind plays viciousness with an old-world smile and a ruthless motormouth as the studio head, while Chip Zien breaks with eager-to-please agony as Charlie's agent.
The mansion, designed by John Lee Beatty, contrasts the brutality with lots of soft sunlight and blond wood. Catherine Zuber's sleek costumes, with truly enviable footwear, make 1949 look better than we were ever told.
As a bookend with the superior early "Golden Boy," this seriously flawed but perversely enjoyable artifact is Odets' own cautionary tale.
By the time Clifford Odets' The Big Knife premiered on Broadway in 1949, he had been writing Hollywood screenplays for more than a decade; and to say that he harbored no illusions about that place would be a vast understatement.
In the 1930s, dramas such as Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy -- the latter was revived earlier this season, gloriously, by Lincoln Center Theater -- established Odets as the American stage's leading progressive voice, with a keen ear for how the socially and economically downtrodden speak and dream, and the tough choices they're forced to make.
In Knife, Tinseltown and its studio system at that time are presented as particularly egregious representatives of the dark forces of commerce to which such strivers can fall prey. Now in revival (* * 1/2 out of four) at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, where it opened Tuesday, the play explores the dilemma of Charlie Castle, a promising stage actor-turned dissatisfied movie star married to a woman, Marion, who still loves him but hates what their life has become.
But Charlie is beholden to a thuggish film mogul, Marcus Hoff, who threatens to disclose a damaging secret unless Charlie signs a new contract, one that will essentially make him studio property until he's well into middle age.
A lot of turmoil follows, and a good deal of speechifying. Where in his aforementioned earlier works, Odets channeled his moral indignation into dialogue that was at once poetic and grittily authentic, the characters in Knife tend to sound less like individuals than archetypes -- the conflicted artist, the corrupt businessman -- or vessels for the playwright's criticism.
It doesn't help that the very fine actors in this new staging, under Doug Hughes' direction, adopt different and at times conflicting approaches. Richard Kind, as Marcus, as Chip Zien, as Charlie's fundamentally decent agent, Nat Danziger, bring a stylized dynamism that feels more appropriate to the material, and the period, than Marion Ireland's curiously modern, deceptively low-key Marion.
As Charlie, the reliably charismatic Bobby Cannavale manages a vigorous naturalism that falls somewhere in the middle, but can seem stumped at times. We certainly see, in his performance, Charlie's passion for his craft, and his sense of self-reproach. What doesn't come across is the cultivated veneer of slickness; his swagger feels a little too raw, his use of the term "darling" self-conscious.
Cannavale and Ireland do make a convincing and appealing couple; as Charlie's old friend Hank Teagle, a writer played with graceful conviction by C.J. Wilson, notes to Charlie, "Marion stands in your life for your idealism, and...you've wounded her and it."
There are moments in this production -- among them the final scene, in which an anguished Marion loses her reserve -- where such lines remind you of the emotional punch Odets can pack. But all told, Knife doesn't cut as deeply as you might expect it would.
In 1949, when “The Big Knife” was first done on Broadway, Clifford Odets’ disenchanted Hollywood matinee idol Charlie Castle must have seemed like a tragic hero, a gifted talent and an essentially decent man who sacrificed his integrity to the bitch-goddess of success. A dramatic surrogate, in fact, for the bitter playwright himself, who left the theater to become a high-priced screenwriter of movies like “Sweet Smell of Success.” But time does cruel things to vintage plays and beloved idols, and in the Roundabout’s current revival starring Bobby Cannavale, that same all-American golden boy looks like kind of a jerk.
If great looks were all it took to be a success, then helmer Doug Hughes’ production would rack up major points. John Lee Beatty’s sweeping Art Deco set of a movie star’s “playroom” in Beverly Hills states his case for the marriage of glamour and taste by making bold use of sharply defined geometric patterns and fundamental materials like raw wood, rough stone, and natural fabrics — and then throwing up some splashy Expressionist art on the walls. The California sun melts over this deluxe set like butter, in James F. Ingalls’ lighting design.
And then, for real beauty, there’s Cannavale as Charlie, a Hollywood idol in the flesh. Odets wrote extensive stage directions for his plays, and Cannavale is exactly what he ordered for Charlie: a supernova who is “virile and insistent, sensitive and aware,” a man who is confident in his strength and wears his success “with a certain relaxed gravity.” And, may we add, has perfect posture and knows how to wear clothes — mainly white ensembles, to signify his essential goodness.
Cannavale not only carries off the studly movie star persona, he’s not unmanned by Charlie’s displays of emotion to his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), who shows similar strength of character and also looks great in white. (Costumer Catherine Zuber did some terrific job on this show.)
But neither of these fine thesps seems willing or able to attack the deeper flaws of their difficult characters. Ireland struggles earnestly (and visibly) to dredge up sympathy for rigid, righteous Marion, who hates that Charlie sacrificed his artistic ideals and political values to make commercial trash, and now presents him with a stiff ultimatum. Either he turns down a multimillion-dollar movie contract and returns with her to New York to write plays, or she leaves him, possibly to marry his best friend.
Charlie’s choices are further limited by a not-so-secret sin that everybody talks about quite openly, but which would ruin his career if it ever got out. That makes him a model candidate for being blackmailed by overly inquisitive (and divinely overdressed) Hollywood tarts like the two played so vividly here by Ana Reeder and Rachel Brosnahan.
Charlie’s loyal agent, Nat Danziger (wrapped in heart-warming sincerity by Chip Zien), does his best to protect him from predators, but it’s a lost cause. Charlie’s luxurious tastes have put him in the power of deadly serious Hollywood players like Marcus Hoff, a ruthless studio head who is assigned Odets’ fruitiest dialogue and played to ghastly perfection by Richard Kind as a man of whom it might truly be said that “the embroidery of your speech is all out of proportion to anything you have to say.”
Charlie’s no coward, and he does stand up to the threats of violent men like Smiley Coy (what a name!), the studio enforcer played with quiet menace by Reg Rogers. But Charlie’s real enemy is himself. Having come to enjoy the fame, the fortune and the fleshpots of Hollywood, he can’t bring himself to give up his spoils. In fact, he’s already so far gone that his last line of moral defense is that he won’t murder — not personally, that is — some bimbo who’s blackmailing him.
Although Cannavale registers Charlie’s longing to escape his golden cage, he can’t seem to get past the character’s narcissism. There’s a reference in the play to Macbeth, “who, one by one, kills his better selves.” But Charlie doesn’t allow himself to agonize over matters of guilt, remorse, and reparation, finding it easier to blame the industry that turned him into a commercial commodity.
A corrupted hero like Charlie, sunk in bitterness and self-pity, isn’t as easy for an aud to take to its heart as the idealistic young men in Odets plays like “Awake and Sing” and “Golden Boy.” All the same, there’s the nagging thought that, in a less glittery and more searching production, there might be something more to be found in a character whose creation was such a source of pain for his creator.