Theater review by David Cote. American Airlines Theatre (see Broadway). By Clifford Odets. Dir. Doug Hughes. With Bobby Cannavale, Marin Ireland, Richard Kind. 2hrs 25mins. One intermission.
When The Big Knife opened in 1949, Clifford Odets had been absent from Broadway for seven years, toiling in Hollywood and getting further from his glory days with the Group Theatre. Knife—the tragedy of matinee idol Charles Castle (Cannavale), who wants out of pictures but keeps getting sucked in—was pooh-poohed as Odets’s bitter tirade against an industry that was wasting his talent. But is it really about Tinseltown? In a letter to Harold Clurman two years earlier, Odets wrote, “I want this play to be Elizabethan in brutal, excited feel.” The piece was always meant to be more than a condemnation of the studio system. It’s a modern morality tale, aimed at a corrosive society that induces people to trade freedom for comfort and cheap fame—a theme we can relate to six decades on.
The Big Knife’s first Broadway revival is muscular, moody and stylish, with a mostly solid cast under Doug Hughes’s shrewd direction. Cannavale has an air of whiskey-soaked Bogart about him and his line readings capture the snap and brassy bawl of Odetsian banter. (What a year it’s been for the sinewy lug—first Ricky Roma, now this.) As Castle’s estranged wife, Marion, Marin Ireland seems overly recessive and wan, but she has fiery moments. Fleshly and venomous Richard Kind devours his grandiloquent speeches as a thuggish, sanctimonious movie mogul. And Reg Rogers slithers around marvelously as a vicious fixer. In a smaller but memorable turn, Rachel Brosnahan plays a falling starlet who holds a mortal misdeed over Castle’s head. In general, the production strikes the right fevered, grisly tone.
If anybody worried that the fall’s stunning revival of Odets’s Golden Boy would put Big Knife in the shade, fear not. The former is superior work, but even second-rate Odets is a thrill to hear with actors this good. Slip into his hard-boiled vibe and take his devices in stride: the thematic telegraphing, the stodgy authorial stand-in, the violent catharsis. It’s called The Big Knife; you know there will be blood.—David Cote
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