The Big Knife

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 1, 2013

    There is so very much that is wrong with this production it makes your brain flutter. But none of it is the writing. That is a certainty.

    This is a beautiful retelling of the tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil, and the devil has shown up to collect. Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) is a movie star owned by the Studio that Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) runs. On the preceding Christmas Eve Charlie was drunk, zigged when he should have zagged and ran down a little girl. She died. The studios arranged for Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick) to take the fall, which involved a few months in jail.

    Hoff is here to collect on his favor in the form of a new 14-year contract that only needs Charlie’s signature. On the con side of the fence is Charlie’s wife Marion (Marin Ireland) who is desolate to see what her once exciting and hungry husband has become. He used to be an actor. Now he is a personality. He is a gold mine for the studio who prefers card games and dalliances to the work of acting and the commitment of a family.

    So our pal Charlie is in a bind. And Odets populates this sad corner with all manner of people who have a stake planted in Charlie’s heart. Nat Danziger (a beautifully restrained Chip Zien) is the voice of reason speaking in Charlie’s ear. Nat truly wants the best for his client, even though he is on intimate terms with all the skeletons. And C. J. Wilson as Hank Teagle the man who handles Charlie’s money is also in Charlie’s corner.

    But the rest of the world is, in a word, preying. The women who were conveniences at one time are now showing up as punishments. The men who cheered him on are now slathering the paint on the floor to push Charlie into a corner.

    All of this Odets delivered with text that is poetry. Friendly fire is sprinkled between cocktails as the noose is tightened around Charlie’s neck and he is pushed closer and closer to the edge. Zien, Kind and Wilson each give performances that are firmly grounded in Odet’s play - which makes the rest of the performances nearly shocking in their execution. Beginning with the blocking, everyone is at cross-purposes. The entire cast spends a good deal of time with their backs to us as if they were images in a Hopper painting. Cannavale paces the stage like a thoroughbred with colic. He spends most of his time walking away from people, only to be stopped by a piece of the set. Ireland appears disengaged instead of passionate about her future and is often unintelligible, which may be in part due to the set. Although it is beautiful, the set eats up sound.

    The entire package misses the mark. Doug Hughes direction is simply baffling. These actors have been left to fend for themselves, and the result is not a pretty picture. When you read this script, the story and the beauty of the prose leaps out at you. How that got beaten out of this production is a mystery. It is also a shame.

    "A sluggish, soulless revival."
    Charles Isherwood for New York Times

    "The play emerges as a blunt instrument that could have stayed in a drawer."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "But only occasionally does real tension fill set designer John Lee Beatty’s beautiful Hollywood-modern living room."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "Builds to a climax of harrowing emotional devastation."
    Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

    "A juicy fable of old Hollywood at its most notorious."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "A big helping of stale cheese that is being served with the utmost skill."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "While its preachy lack of subtlety makes this drama ultimately less corrosive or shattering than the tragic events that unfold onstage might have been, it’s still fascinating theater, even with imperfectly cast leads."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "A great cast but doesn't dig deep."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety