In 1949, when “The Big Knife” was first done on Broadway, Clifford Odets’ disenchanted Hollywood matinee idol Charlie Castle must have seemed like a tragic hero, a gifted talent and an essentially decent man who sacrificed his integrity to the bitch-goddess of success. A dramatic surrogate, in fact, for the bitter playwright himself, who left the theater to become a high-priced screenwriter of movies like “Sweet Smell of Success.” But time does cruel things to vintage plays and beloved idols, and in the Roundabout’s current revival starring Bobby Cannavale, that same all-American golden boy looks like kind of a jerk.
If great looks were all it took to be a success, then helmer Doug Hughes’ production would rack up major points. John Lee Beatty’s sweeping Art Deco set of a movie star’s “playroom” in Beverly Hills states his case for the marriage of glamour and taste by making bold use of sharply defined geometric patterns and fundamental materials like raw wood, rough stone, and natural fabrics — and then throwing up some splashy Expressionist art on the walls. The California sun melts over this deluxe set like butter, in James F. Ingalls’ lighting design.
And then, for real beauty, there’s Cannavale as Charlie, a Hollywood idol in the flesh. Odets wrote extensive stage directions for his plays, and Cannavale is exactly what he ordered for Charlie: a supernova who is “virile and insistent, sensitive and aware,” a man who is confident in his strength and wears his success “with a certain relaxed gravity.” And, may we add, has perfect posture and knows how to wear clothes — mainly white ensembles, to signify his essential goodness.
Cannavale not only carries off the studly movie star persona, he’s not unmanned by Charlie’s displays of emotion to his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), who shows similar strength of character and also looks great in white. (Costumer Catherine Zuber did some terrific job on this show.)
But neither of these fine thesps seems willing or able to attack the deeper flaws of their difficult characters. Ireland struggles earnestly (and visibly) to dredge up sympathy for rigid, righteous Marion, who hates that Charlie sacrificed his artistic ideals and political values to make commercial trash, and now presents him with a stiff ultimatum. Either he turns down a multimillion-dollar movie contract and returns with her to New York to write plays, or she leaves him, possibly to marry his best friend.
Charlie’s choices are further limited by a not-so-secret sin that everybody talks about quite openly, but which would ruin his career if it ever got out. That makes him a model candidate for being blackmailed by overly inquisitive (and divinely overdressed) Hollywood tarts like the two played so vividly here by Ana Reeder and Rachel Brosnahan.
Charlie’s loyal agent, Nat Danziger (wrapped in heart-warming sincerity by Chip Zien), does his best to protect him from predators, but it’s a lost cause. Charlie’s luxurious tastes have put him in the power of deadly serious Hollywood players like Marcus Hoff, a ruthless studio head who is assigned Odets’ fruitiest dialogue and played to ghastly perfection by Richard Kind as a man of whom it might truly be said that “the embroidery of your speech is all out of proportion to anything you have to say.”
Charlie’s no coward, and he does stand up to the threats of violent men like Smiley Coy (what a name!), the studio enforcer played with quiet menace by Reg Rogers. But Charlie’s real enemy is himself. Having come to enjoy the fame, the fortune and the fleshpots of Hollywood, he can’t bring himself to give up his spoils. In fact, he’s already so far gone that his last line of moral defense is that he won’t murder — not personally, that is — some bimbo who’s blackmailing him.
Although Cannavale registers Charlie’s longing to escape his golden cage, he can’t seem to get past the character’s narcissism. There’s a reference in the play to Macbeth, “who, one by one, kills his better selves.” But Charlie doesn’t allow himself to agonize over matters of guilt, remorse, and reparation, finding it easier to blame the industry that turned him into a commercial commodity.
A corrupted hero like Charlie, sunk in bitterness and self-pity, isn’t as easy for an aud to take to its heart as the idealistic young men in Odets plays like “Awake and Sing” and “Golden Boy.” All the same, there’s the nagging thought that, in a less glittery and more searching production, there might be something more to be found in a character whose creation was such a source of pain for his creator.
The Big Knife
(American Airlines Theater; 740 seats; $127 top)
A Roundabout Theater Company production of a play in acts by Clifford Odets. Directed by Doug Hughes.
Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, James F. Ingalls; original music & sound, David Van Tieghem; hair & wigs, Tom Watson; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok. Opened April 16, 2013. Reviewed April 13. Running time: TWO HOURS, 25 MIN.
With: Billy Eugene Jones, Joey Slotnick, Bobby Cannavale, Brenda Wehle, Marin Ireland, Chip Zien, Richard Kind, Reg Rogers, Ana Reeder, C.J. Wilson, Rachel Brosnahan