NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
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