At the performance I caught of Clifford Odets’ 1949 drama The Big Knife, the audience broke out in applause at the wonders that set designer John Lee Beatty had performed at the American Airlines Theatre. The time might have been the late 1940s, as the Hollywood studio system felt its hegemony seriously threatened for the first time. But most of the theatergoers undoubtedly wished that the movie-star home they saw was real and that they could move in there themselves.
Before long, we learned that it was all a gilded cage. The owner of this splendid Beverly Hills home, Charlie Castle, is a prisoner in his own well-appointed fortress. All these creature comforts only make it that much harder to unfasten the chains of a multiyear contract that his studio is pressing him to sign, through every means, fair and foul, at its command.
John Garfield, then about to be caught up in his own Tinseltown tragedy as a blacklist victim, starred in the show’s initial run more than 60 years ago. Surely, the matinee idol and Odets, his onetime associate in New York’s Group Theatre, the great troupe that helped revolutionize American acting with a more naturalistic style, shared bone-deep aspirations to higher art and an all-too-human susceptibility to matters of the flesh that elevated this collaboration to moments of real power.
That sense of urgency, however, was never really communicated in the revival mounted by the Roundabout Theatre that closed this past Sunday.
Charlie’s gilded cage might be one reason why some audience members (and judging by the reviews, critics) had had a hard time warming to this production. No getting around it: this is a problem play, in more ways than one.
Like an earlier play by Clifford Odets, Golden Boy (revived in an acclaimed production late last year at Lincoln Center), The Big Knife dramatizes the way that capitalism corrupts, undermines and defeats artistic aspirations. It is much easier, however, for an audience to feel sympathy for Golden Boy’s Joe Bonaparte—fearful that the Great Depression will crush his dream of a career as a violinist, grasping at boxing as his meal-ticket out of poverty—than Castle, earning his way in an uninspired career, but gainfully employed, for all that.
The melodrama that Odets wrote, from inside the belly of the beast, mirrors in some ways the B-movie fare that Castle longs to escape. Seldom has any writer’s disgust with Hollywood been rendered so palpably. (In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a star might be forgotten, but not a target for blackmail or cause of a murder plot—just a perpetrator of a crazed, accidental shooting.)
From 1935 to early 1940, Odets was considered the “golden boy” of American theater, with seven plays to his credit. In 1949, after a prosperous but artistically unsatisfying time writing and directing films, he returned to the Great White Way, hoping that this vehicle—molded first to the persona of good friend Cary Grant, then, more crucially, to Garfield—would be his comeback.
It wasn’t--and, if a critical reevaluation will ever try to salvage Odets, it’s hard to see how this play will reclaim his once-prestigious perch in American theater.
By and large, the drama is about as well-cast as any recent Roundabout production. Marin Ireland makes for a deeply sympathetic Marian, Charlie’s estranged wife, whose continuing love for him is sorely tested by his unfaithfulness, his departure from his ideals as a struggling young actor, and the presence of a stalwart if dull writer who would like to marry her. Chip Zien turns Charlie’s agent Nat Danziger into an anguished father figure to Charlie and Marian, who tries to resolve the impossible: his client’s wish for artistic freedom and the studio’s mounting anger over their chief moneymaker’s defiance.
Particularly excellent are two heavies in this production: Richard Kind, who, as an at times comically tyrannical studio boss, Marcus Hoff, will remind many of Columbia Pictures’s infamous chief, Harry Cohn; and Reg Rogers as Smiley Coy, Hoff’s slimy all-purpose fixer, who, with a phone call, can make almost any problem disappear—including a drunk-driving incident from a year ago that involved Charlie, for whom a friend took the fall.
The one major actor I could point to in the cast who was problematic was, unfortunately, the lead, Bobby Cannavale. He made a fine impression on me in a fine 2005 ensemble production of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, but he couldn’t carry the burden created by Odets.
The difficulty starts with the playwright’s quirky dialogue. Sometimes a line puts a sharp twist on what, in other hands, would sound cliched (Charlie to Marian: “Play billiards, Angel, or put the cue down,” rather than “Don’t start a conversation and then drop it”). In other instances, though, the lines come across as faux-poetic (“You go on grieving for the past, like a weeping bird”). In still other cases, the dialogue is the worst kind of speechifying, holding the play’s themes aloft in the most boldface banner (Charlie on studio bosses such as Hoff: “Don’t they murder the highest dreams and hopes of a whole great people with the movies they make? This whole movie thing is a murder of the people.”)
Perhaps only Garfield could have invested such lines with the raw believability that Odets desired. Nowhere near as heralded as he should be today as the precursor of Brando, Pacino, DeNiro, or, indeed, generations of New York actors, Garfield--whose centennial went criminally unnoticed a few months ago (including by me)--might not have been always sympathetic, but with his intelligence, sexual magnetism, and unrelenting intensity, he was compulsively watchable and fully human. It isn’t a disgrace that Cannavale doesn’t possess all these qualities, let alone in such abundance. Few other actors do.
Nevertheless, my disappointment as I left the American Airlines Theatre was keen. I had vague memories of the 1955 film adaptation of this play starring Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Shelley Winters and Rod Steiger. I had hoped that the Roundabout would weave magic from this fascinating but neglected drama. But despite fine casting and production values, Doug Hughes’ deeply respectful direction only focused more attention on the play’s hollow core.