Two major revivals of the under-appreciated work of Clifford Odets in one season is almost miraculous. First we had the close to perfect Bartlett Sher production of GOLDEN BOY. Now we have the first major revival of THE BIG KNIFE (1949), under Doug Hughes direction.
Though THE BIG KNIFE is not as strong a play as GOLDEN BOY, it is something of a companion piece. Both are sagas of the price of success for a driven, talented, far-from-perfect individual. Joe Bonaparte, the boxer protagonist of GOLDEN BOY, dies young in his beloved automobile. Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), the central character in THE BIG KNIFE, has lived long enough to see his life in tatters. He's one of the biggest box-office draws in America, but success has not bought him happiness -- it never does in Odets' work. He is guilt ridden about his involvement in a fatal hit and run accident. The studio covered up Charlie's responsibility for the event. His best friend was willing to take the blame (for a price), but now the starlet who was in the car with Castle is engaging in not-so-subtle blackmail of the studio. More overwhelming than Charlie's guilt is his general sense of losing his identity. His estranged wife Marian (Marin Ireland), knows that the only way to get his self worth back is to reject a long term contract the studio is strong-arming him into accepting. However, the monstrous studio head is engaging in his own form of blackmail. Charlie must accept the contract or be ruined.
Odets spent much of his career in Hollywood, not the most congenial environment for serious writers, and THE BIG KNIFE is his bleak picture of the corruption of the studio system and the tyrants who ran the studios (Louis Mayer at MGM, Harry Cohn at Columbia, Jack Warner). The most vividly drawn character in the play is studio head Marcus Hoff. Marcus veers between long, avuncular narratives, to teary sentimentality to ruthless manipulation. Cross him once too often and he will destroy you. In this production, Richard Kind captures Hoff's mercuric personality. The audience laughs at Kind's Hoff until his fangs are bared. Marcus Hoff is the most interesting character in the play because at its best, THE BIG KNIFE is a dark satire of the mores of Hollywood, from studio heads and their henchmen to starlets who are angry at the ways in which they are exploited to well-meaning agents to diva-like gossip columnists (Odets' picture of Louella Parsons or Sheila Graham). The less convincing parts of the play are the melodramatic ones surrounding Charlie Castle's efforts to save himself and his marriage. To some extent, this Roundabout production is a vehicle of Bobby Cannavale, and he does all he can to bring Charlie to life. I have never seen Cannavale on stage before but, despite his many excellent performances on television, you have to see him on stage to appreciate what a good actor he is. The original Charlie was John Garfield who moved from the Group Theatre in the 1930s to a successful Hollywood career in the late forties until the red scare undid him (he died young in 1953). Garfield had a very uneasy relationship with his studio, Warner Brothers (he eventually went independent), so it was possible to see both Odets and Garfield in Charlie Castle when the play had its premiere in 1949. Cannavale brings no such history to the role, but it's easy to believe that he is a Hollywood leading man and he brings a necessary sexiness to the role (for all his love of his wife, Charlie cannot seem to control his libido, even with his best friend's wife, and women can't resist him). Cannavale also matches Richard Kind's Marcus during their two lengthy confrontations, the best scenes in the play I can't imagine anyone better in the role than Cannavale. It isn't his fault that I don't find Charlie a totally believable character.
THE BIG KNIFE isn't as good as the plays Odet's wrote in the nineteen-thirties, particularly AWAKE AND SING, GOLDEN BOY and PARADISE LOST. Nonetheless it is worth reviving and Doug Hughes' production plays down the melodrama and works to make the characters as credible as possible. It's a sound choice, but it downplays the dark satire of the piece. The men in the cast are stronger than the women. I'd like a tougher Marian than Marin Ireland gives us and Brenda Wehle could do more with the character of the gossip columnist, but that may be a result of director Hughes's softening much of the satire. She's a monster and should be as big as Richard Kind's Marcus Hoff.
Though I have reservations, I thoroughly enjoyed this revival and am grateful to the Roundabout for giving us a chance to see this play by one of America's major playwrights.
THE BIG KNIFE. Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre. March 28, 2013.