This revival is decidedly better than many reviews out there suggest. Perhaps the problem is that Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, a very good play, is showing up in a season with top-flight revival of what many feel is his best play, Golden Boy.
In late 1940s Hollywood, the Hoff-Federated studio has its most successful star, Charlie Castle, over a barrel since it helped cover up a mistake that could have ended his career. When a woman with insider knowledge threatens to come forward, the studio heads will stop at nothing to protect Charlie’s secret.
I’ll admit that while I like Odets, I’m not his most enthusiastic fan. The Big Knife has everything I like about Odets – penetrating thematic intelligence and engrossing characters – and everything I don’t – an unthinking sense that tragedy equals seriousness, and moral points stated so baldly and melodramatically that they are rendered inescapably corny. In short, The Big Knife is identifiably Odets, full stop.
And this production, directed by Doug Hughes, does a first-rate job of giving us Odets, full stop. Bobby Cannavale is suitably sexy and tortured as Charlie. In the shows strongest performance, Richard Kind plays a manipulative studio exec who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, but works very hard to pretend that he only wants what’s best for his stars. The designers are old Broadway hands, John Lee Beatty on sets and Catherine Zuber on costumes, so it’s hardly surprising that they make us want to live in Charlie’s mid-century modern house and wear his old Hollywood glamour wardrobe.
It really all boils down to how much you enjoy Clifford Odets in general. As I said above, I like but don’t love Odets, so I liked but didn’t love The Big Knife – I certainly can’t fault Hughes and company for getting Odets wrong, as others seem to.
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