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Theater review: 'The Big Knife'

Dennis King Published: April 22, 2013

NEW YORK – Clifford Odets was no stranger to 20th century Hollywood’s soul-sucking allure and the all-powerful studio system’s Svengali hold over its cash-producing stars and starlets. He was, after all, one of those New York playwright-intellectuals who inevitably answered the siren call of big money and spent much of his writing career laboring in the glamorous but largely unaccredited fields of Southern California moviedom.

In 1949, Odets – always torn between his passion for social justice and the commercial dictates of his art – penned a blunt attack on Hollywood cynicism in “The Big Knife.” It was first produced on Broadway with John Garfield in the leading role and was later adapted for the big screen with Jack Palance starring.

Now, a somewhat rusty revival has opened again on Broadway with the powerhouse Bobby Cannavale (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) assuming the key role of Charlie Castle, a Bogart-like Hollywood star caught in a velvet vise between his ironclad studio contract and his own guilt over a tragic, drunken accident.

Always concerned with themes of ambition, corruption and lost ideals, Odets covered much of the same ground a decade earlier in his acclaimed boxing play, “Golden Boy,” which oddly enough was also revived this past winter in a well-reviewed Lincoln Center production.  By contrast, “The Big Knife” seems far less incisive and more heavily didactic.

The story is set in Castle’s sun-dappled, glass-walled L.A. living room (an airy, palm-treed dream mansion designed by John Lee Beatty) where the comings and goings of the matinee idol’s well-dressed circle of family, friends, servants and studio bigwigs form the play’s dramatic spine.

Typical of Odets, we’re plunged into the key conflict quickly. It seems that the world-weary Castle is due to renew his contract with brash studio mogul Marcus Hoff (a very oily Richard Kind). Castle’s disheartened wife Marion (Marin Ireland) wants him to quit Hollywood and regain his soul, but Hoff has a dastardly bargaining chip he won’t hesitate to play in order to keep Castle tied to the studio.

Turns out that on a drunken night out, Castle ran over and killed a child in his car, and his ever-loyal, lackey pal Buddy (nerdy Joey Slotnick) took the rap and did jail time. To complicate matters, an ambitious young starlet named Dixie (Rachel Brosnahan) witnessed the accident and is threatening to expose Castle and the studio cover-up.

Whispering devilishly in Castle’s ear is Hoff’s thuggish publicity fixer, Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), who is intimating murder as a way to smooth things over and keep Castle’s manly image unsullied by the scandal.

The production possesses a cool, old-Hollywood sheen, and the cast – especially the smooth, booze-swilling Cannavale – gives the story a disillusioned, B-movie panache – sort of “A Star Is Born” air of inevitable doom. But by today’s standards the play seems stilted, predictable and overly melodramatic.

In its time, “The Big Knife” might have cut to the bone with its rock-solid air of righteousness. In our more media-saturated and ironical age, it feels more like a dated relic telling us the obvious – that wealth, adulation and stardom can come at a terrible price.

- Dennis King