Theater Review: ‘The Big Knife’

May 13, 2013 Updated: June 7, 2013    

NEW YORK—A good man can never outrun his own conscience, as Clifford Odets brilliantly demonstrates in his searing drama “The Big Knife,” now being given a sterling revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

In 1938, Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) is a movie star and idol of millions. Yet there is uneasiness behind his hardscrabble exterior. His pictures are beginning to have certain sameness to them, as does his acting style, a fact pointed out by his semi-estranged wife Marion (Marin Ireland). 

Charlie and Marion love each other dearly, despite Charlie’s continually roaming eye. But while Marion can deal with his infidelities, she cannot live with the person he has become. He has become a man who may yell and scream about what he wants for his career, but who eventually bows down to the studio that owns him. 

This duality is caused by Charlie’s involvement in an unsavory incident, which the studio hushed up and which, if made public, would destroy his career. 

Charlie’s fast-talking agent Nat (Chip Zien) and studio head Marcus (Richard Kind) are eager to get Charlie’s name on a 14–year ironclad contract. The two have arrived at Charlie’s Beverly Hills home to get the deal done. 

Also present is Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), Marcus’s genial “bag” man. He is someone who does the dirty jobs that no one wants to know about, but which all accept as the price of doing business.

Charlie desperately wants to be the proud, independent man he once was, but he is unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to do so. 

He may not have the luxury of indecision much longer, though, as two very different women are threatening to drag him down. First is Connie Bliss (Ana Reeder), wife of Charlie’s friend Buddy (Joey Slotnick), a good-time girl who likes the finer things in life. The other is Dixie Evans (Rachel Brosnahan), a young actress whose career has been little more than walk-on parts and who the studio uses to entertain clients and look pretty at publicity functions. 

Both women know more about Charlie’s secret than they’ve publicly let on as yet. It’s a connection that Buddy is also aware of, though he’s too loyal to Charlie to ever say anything, or so it seems.

“The Big Knife” offers an unflinching look at how big business can destroy the common man. Charlie and most of those in his orbit are little more than cogs in a relentless film studio machine—one that will eventually grind them down and replace them with other obedient drones for their workforce. 

This frequent Odets theme is here far less preachy than in other works by the playwright. 

It’s important to note that practically none of those in the story are completely innocent. Most are trying to change the rules of the game they’ve all been previously willing to play. 

It also helps that the show is well-directed by Doug Hughes, who lets events unfold slowly and naturally toward their inevitable yet unexpected conclusions.

Casting is excellent. Cannavale is brilliant as Charlie, a man filled with intense self-loathing due to his acceptance of his situation. The actor’s every movement, line, and gesture is delivered with the air of someone on a continual downward spiral, with it being only a question of time before he hits bottom.

Ireland does a wonderful turn as Marion, a serious yet passionate woman who is no longer willing to be part of a lifestyle that she has come to despise. She has her own share of secrets, not all of which involve Charlie. Ireland plays a final scene that is particularly gut-wrenching. 

Kind does a tremendous job as Marcus. He’s a studio chief with a congenial outlook, underneath which lurks an ominous manipulator. Using a combination of veiled threats and smiles tipped with acid, he keeps everyone around him in line. 

Rogers works well as Smiley, a loyal studio man through and through and someone to whom no job is too dangerous to contemplate. 

Reeder is very good as Connie, a woman with a yen for Charlie and what he can offer her. And Brosnahan offers a nice bit of pathos as Dixie, an unhappy young woman who, seeing the shambles that her life has become, wants to hurt as many of those she blames for her plight as possible. 

Zien and Slotnick are good in their respective roles, both outwardly contented men haunted by their past deeds.

John Lee Beatty’s set of the playroom of the Castle home is appropriate for a star of Charlie’s caliber without being overblown. Sound design by David Van Tieghem is very effective, especially as contributing to the final scenes. Costumes by Catherine Zuber are nicely tailored to the various characters, with the outfits that Ireland wears being particularly eye-catching.

“The Big Knife” goes for the heart, throat, and jugular and hits pay dirt for its efforts. Absent from Broadway since its 1949 debut, the show makes a long-overdue return with a message both timeless and universal.

Also in the cast are Billy Eugene Jones, Brenda Wehle, and C.J. Wilson.

“The Big Knife”
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-719-1300 or visit www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running Time: Two hours, 35 minutes 
Closes: June 2

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.

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