Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 16, 2013
The Big Knife by Clifford Odets. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by James F. Ingalls. Original music & sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Rachel Brosnahan, Bobby Cannavale, Marin Ireland, Billy Eugene Jones, Richard Kind, Ana Reeder, Reg Rogers, Joey Slotnick, Brenda Wehle, C.J. Wilson, Chip Zien.
Compare it to, for example, Odets's earlier Golden Boy (1937, also revived on Broadway this season). In both plays, a New York boy makes good and makes it big, only to find out that every step up the ladder comes with a heavy price. The earlier play by the younger writer boasts a marginally more optimistic view of life's possibilities, the latter a more jaded reading that, from the get-go, moralizes that no one who's ever given a chance ever actually has one.
Odets was always at his most vibrant when he was at his most activist — think, also, Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty. Next to them, The Big Knife feels strangely safe. Concerning as it does Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), an on-the-rise midlevel film star who's hoping to escape his studio contract for the sake of his marriage and his soul, there are only so many places to go. If, at any point, Charlie gives in completely to either his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), who wants him to give it all up, or to the agent (Chip Zien), studio executive (Richard Kind), or his violent crony (Reg Rogers), who want him to keep at it, the play would end before its allotted three acts and two and a half hours are up.
This artificiality is not aided by recent decades having brought, to the screen and stage alike, any number of other works that warn of the vicissitudes of fame in at least as astute a way. Watching The Big Knife today, you can enjoy, or even applaud, the smoothness with which it attacks its topic, and marvel what it may have seemed like when it was fresh. But you can't overlook the more cynical views of show business that have crept into our public consciousness since 1949 and made such fare almost distractingly commonplace. (Odets's screenplay, eight years later, for Sweet Smell of Success would make many of these same points with far more panache.)
There is a bit of genuine edge-of-your-seat material to be found, mostly arising during a series of eye-rolling late-show complications constructed around a blousy day player named Dixie Evans (Rachel Brosnahan). And some of the confrontations during which Charlie struggles to extricate himself from the celluloid slavery in which he's become enmeshed, only to learn that he's facing forces far more powerful than he can confront on his own, are legitimately compelling. But after a while, the overwrought nature of the situations becomes oppressive, and Odets's florid dialogue, which never flows naturally from the mouths of these people, contributes too much to an antimusical texture that doesn't let any moment at all sing. (One clunky line, of many: "I'm charming the world with my light fantastic," Charlie pleads at one point, "I'm bleeding to death under my shirt.")
And the acting, at least in the key performances, is spot-on. Cannavale rings achingly true as Charlie, embodying exactly the kind of exercise-cut, hollowed-out figure you imagine Golden Boy's Joe Bonaparte would have become had he survived into his 30s. He summons at every point along his journey the sense of being trapped by his own choices, and he ramps up nicely and subtly to the ho-hum tragic conclusion that Odets, being Odets, telegraphs from about the halfway point of Act I.
Ireland is, if anything, even better, projecting a weary elegance that conveys both Marion's adoration of and exasperation with her husband; yet it's tempered by a confidence that suggests, not without reason, that she's where the real power in their partnership lies.
Rogers is gleefully oily as the movie muscle who has more influence than his apparent station might imply, and his scenes alone with Cannavale have the most heat of any in the production. Zien and Kind break no new ground in the performances they give, but acquit themselves well enough; Brosnahan, Joey Slotnick (as Charlie's friend named, sigh, Buddy), Ana Reeder as a talented vamp, and C.J. Wilson as potential Other Man Hank give their thankless, one-note roles everything they have.
That their work doesn't — and can't — amount to much is not their fault; in fact, the actors and their director are the only good reasons for those who aren't diehard Odets aficionados to see The Big Knife. Without them, it would be even harder to avoid the realization that everything here had been seen and heard far better, and more cuttingly, in many other places.