Friday, May 10, 2013

theatre review THE BIG KNIFE, Broadway, May 4

Clifford Odets has had a pretty good year on Broadway for a playwright who died fifty years ago.  His play Golden Boy received a stellar revival from Lincoln Center a few months back and his Hollywood based drama The Big Knife just opened in a well cast production from the Roundabout a few weeks ago. With Bobby Cannavale in the central role of a Hollywood star at a crossroads, this is the first Broadway revival the play has received since its 1949 debut. 

Charlie Castle is the most successful star working for the Hoff-Federated studio, even though he is starring in schlocky B movies.  But his rise to fame isn't without a small misstep where Charlie was involved in a hit and run accident where a child was killed, though a friend of Charlie's took the blame in order to not implicate Charlie.  Castle's wife Marion, who is living separately from him and is ready to leave him, doesn't want Charlie to renew his contract but studio boss Hoff has no problem blackmailing Charlie by bringing up the accident.  And when the starlet Charlie who was with when the accident happened, who we find out Hoff paid off by signing her to a contract,  might start talking about it, Hoff has plans to silence her that run against Charlie's principles and integrity and drive the play to its climactic end.

Richard Kind, Bobby Cannavale and Chip Zien
The Big Knife has some similar themes to Odets' earlier play Golden Boy.  In Golden Boy, a young man has to decide if he'd rather seek fame and fortune via boxing verses following art and culture from his ability to skillfully play the violin.  In The Big Knife the central character of a Hollywood star has already reached a high level of success but now he must decide to either continue on his career path even if it means disrupting his relationship with his wife and possibly losing his integrity.  With strong female characters that are in love with both main characters, powerful agents who play fast and lose with the facts with them and the central plot point that both characters have been involved in killing someone that is held over their heads, you can clearly see how Odets used the same plot elements, themes and types of characters in both of these plays, but in very different ways, to get across specific statements about fame and the toll it takes. 

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale
However there are some big differences between Golden Boy and The Big Knife mainly in the structure of each play.   Golden Boy has a perfect arc for the main character with a realistic rise and fall but not so with The Big Knife. The first two acts set up the plot but because Charlie is already successful and since the plot device of him being almost forced to sign the contract happens fairly quickly in act one there really doesn't seem much further for the plot to advance.  Even Marion seems alright with what happens with the contract so that resolution also happens quickly.  And while Charlie struggles with the decision to re-sign, we know he is already successful, has a huge elaborate house and plenty of friends and actresses ready to throw themselves at him so we don't quite see how much Charlie has to lose.  However, the third act pulls everything together in an emotional, touching and very realistic way.  It's too bad though as the intermission for this production is placed between the second and third acts and several people at the performance we attended decided to leave.   They missed a really great third act.

Director Doug Hughes has assembled a top notch cast for this revival.  Not only is Cannavale believable as a Hollywood star of the 1940's, but he has the charisma, look and stature of the typical 1940's cinema hero that his character Castle always plays.  He also skillfully shows the demons that he is faced with as well as the ways that he battles and tries to silence them via alcohol and girls.  As Hoff, Richard Kind is giving a spectacular performance, he is equal parts mothering movie studio head and an out of control monster.  Kind's ability to instantly turn from one of these to the next is remarkable and it's easy to see why he got a Tony nomination for this role.  As Marion, Marin Ireland is appropriately cool and quiet and uninterested in anything Hollywood related, exactly as the non-movie star wife of a movie star in the 1940's would be.  Chip Zien as Castle's agent is loving and caring of Castle but lashes out at Hoff in such a way that his entire face turns bright red.  This isn't an easy play to act, with wide ranges of emotion on display and Zien is definitely up to the challenge.  Reg Rogers as Hoff's right hand Smiley has the unique part of being almost silent when Hoff is in the room but when he is sent to Castle's home to represent Hoff that is when he becomes as much of a monster as Hoff is, so he two has two roles to play and does them very well. 

In fact, everyone except for Marion is playing a character that is "acting" or pretending to be what they believe the character they are interacting with wants them to be.  It is an interesting point to take away from this play, especially since Odets spent several years in Hollywood writing screenplays before he wrote The Big Knife.  So he definitely has first hand experience with actors, agents and film studio heads.

The set by John Lee Beatty is all large glass windows as if to show that Charlie's life is always on view but also that he is completely trapped inside, which is even worse since he can see life happening right behind the walls.  Costumes by Catherine Zuber are colorful and sleek.

The Big Knife may not be on the same level of Odets' Golden Boy or Arise and Sing! but it has a great third act where everything comes together and this production has a more than game cast to help achieve what is expected of them.  I don't think I'll get the image of water dripping from a ceiling out of my head for a long time.

The Big Knife runs through June 2nd.

Official Show Site

Bobby Cannavale and Director Doug Hughes talk about this production:

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