There’s absolutely no denying that the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Clifford Odets’ rarely seen 1949 drama The Big Knife is a tedious, misconceived and altogether embarrassing misfire. But the real question is whether the blame should be placed primarily on Odets, as this is without dispute one of his worst plays, the Roundabout for its inexplicable decision to revive it, or Doug Hughes for directing a production that fails to find the proper style for an old-fashioned melodrama with stilted, somewhat lyrical language.
The Big Knife marks the final play of a Roundabout season that has been just as schizophrenic as ever in the mixed quality of its productions. While the company offered an absolutely smashing revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which sadly closed a few weeks ago) and a decent production of William Inge’s Picnic, it was also responsible for an unnecessary, unusually vulgar Cyrano and now The Big Knife.
Although Odets was one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century, his greatest works were written in the 1930s and produced by the Group Theatre, including Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy, which received a thrilling, absolutely masterful revival earlier this season by Lincoln Center Theater.
After his initial success with the Group Theatre, Odets worked primarily as a Hollywood screenwriter, producing mainly hack work except for The Sweet Smell of Success. His later plays, such as The Country Girl and The Big Knife, replace the political urgency and individual yearning of his earlier successes with reflective, wallowing self-pity.
The Big Knife, which had a three-month run on Broadway in 1949, observes Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), an A-list actor frustrated by the assembly-line-quality of his B-level noir flicks and marital difficulties with his unsatisfied wife Marion (Marin Ireland), who attempts to not renew his contract with a big studio, which inevitably leads to secret revelations, plot twists, disaster and ultimately tragedy.
Cannavale and Ireland are truly compelling actors who have achieved considerable success in contemporary plays (Cannavale was the best part of this season’s unnecessary revival of Glengarry Glen Ross) and on television (him on Boardwalk Empire, her on Homeland), but they are completely at sea under Hughes’ clueless direction.
Richard Kind, best known for comedy roles, ends up giving the most convincing performance as a sober-minded but ruthless movie mogul. Other strong contributions are made by Chip Zien as Charlie’s loyal, clearly Jewish friend (growing red with rage near the end of the play) and Joey Slotnick as Charlie’s sad and sincere press agent.