The question Clifford Odets posed in his 1949 drama, “The Big Knife” — can artistic integrity survive when confronted by the swelling consequences of a past ethical mistake? — proves show biz manipulations haven’t changed all that much in half a century.
Charlie Castle (Jeff Denton) is a handsome young movie star with some serious cracks below the sunny surface. He’s about to lose his wife, Marion (Stefani Newman), to another man (Rob Brownstein, as Hank), and he wants to give up movies and go back to New York. But studio mogul Marcus Hoff (Robert Costanzo) isn’t about to let his biggest star pass on signing a 14-year contact — especially after he saved Charlie by ensuring that the actor wouldn’t pay for an earlier lapse in judgment that cost a little girl her life.
Charlie is a likable guy who has lost his moral compass and lacks the strength of his convictions. Denton is well-suited to this era; with his slight build, thin mustache and elegant manner, one can easily imagine him in the smoke and shadow-filled films of the ’40s. Here, he’s one of the strongest onstage, despite some fuzziness in the distinctions between movie star Charlie, with his charming smile and subtle, casual conceit, and the younger, more idealistic Charlie, which represents everything he had, he lost, and he wants back.
Newman’s Marion, however, is a physical and emotional mismatch to Denton’s Charlie.
Costanzo is perfectly cast as the high-and-mighty Hoff, a man who can fill a room with the wrath of God. Smiley Coy, Hoff’s snake-in-the-grass assistant, is exceedingly well-played by John Munter. Rob Brownstein infuses Hank with compassion and simple love, and Sarah Schultz plays dizzy Dixie Evans completely, delightfully, to the hilt.
Other elements, however, are more of a mixed bag. Some odd directorial choices position actors with their backs to the audience amid some of their most dramatic confrontations. One moment in particular just screams “set-up” for an angry face slap, but cheats us of its impact.
There is a general lack of urgency that hampers the production overall and contributes to its lengthy running time. Susan Gratch’s set tries, but misses, to evoke the grandeur of a Beverly Hills home, and Michael Shanman’s generic lighting fails to create the proper atmosphere.