While the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Clifford Odet’s The Big Knife has the potential for suspense and sizzle, this show is lacking substantially in both. A series of missed opportunities for tension and laughter, this story of compromised ideals in old-time Hollywood features a talented ensemble that is the victim of some serious misdirection.
Starring the charismatically intense Bobby Cannavale as Charles Castle, a movie star who was once known as Charlie Cass, The Big Knife follows Charlie as he struggles to navigate the increasingly murky waters of Hollywood morality (or lack thereof). In the midst of a lucrative career as a leading man in movies, Charles is faced with the decision to commit to a 14-year contract that binds him to the studio boss Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind.) His wife Marion (Marin Ireland) has left him with the ultimatum that she will divorce him if he signs the agreement.
Charles is no angel; his liquor-soaked lifestyle has included many mistresses, one of whom is threatening to blackmail him about a car accident that took place with her in the passenger seat. After hitting and killing a young woman, Charles let his friend Buddy (Joey Slotnick) take the blame (which involved a stint in prison.) The studio, of course, helped with this arrangement.
Charles has dulled his guilt and self-disgust with his life using alcohol, and the bourbon flows freely in his sun-soaked home, complete with a pool and tennis courts. His sense of entrapment is enhanced by John Lee Beatty’s tastefully opulent set awash in shades of beige that resembles a gilded cage or prison cell.
The complexity of Charles, as well as his imprisonment in his lavish, liquor-soaked lifestyle, provide ample opportunity for drama but, despite Cannavale’s intense and undeniable talent, The Big Knife does not portray the suspense needed to drive this story of intrigue and deception. The studio is so anxious to quiet the woman who was with Charles the night of the accident that they are contemplating murder, but no one’s life actually seems on the line here.
As Marion, Charles’ long-suffering wife who serves as the personification of his intellectual ideals, Ireland does not depict enough passion. Instead she seems weary and disapproving. Yes, this is the result of years of an unhappy marriage, but the audience also needed to see the fire inside her initially attracted Charles to her. When she tells him, “Every day you make me feel less a woman and more a rug under your feet,” the anguish written into those lines is not heard.
Richard Kind plays Marcus Hoffman, the head of the studio and gives a chilling performance equal parts affability and rage, portraying the dangerous turns in temper that could cost a man his career – or more. His aide-de-camp Smiley Coy is played by Reg Rogers, an equally sinister man despite his name, who mechanically strips the humanity of every situation he faces. Chip Zien gives a gut-wrenching performances as Charlie’s agent Nat, trying desperately to please everyone around him. And Rachel Brosnahan is entertaining as Dixie, the partner in crime of Charlie’s hit and run, but she puts too much emphasis on her nasally, uneducated way of speaking. The comedic aspect quickly passes and what’s left is simply annoying.
The Big Knife is undeniably dated, especially in its portrayal of women, and it is crucial to keep this context in mind as the men onstage treat the women as merely temporary roadblocks that are, without a doubt, disposable. Dixie is the only woman who is not ashamed of her ambition and openly utilizes her sexuality in an attempt to reach her goals. Unfortunately, this strategy does not work out well for her. Connie (Ana Reeder), who is married to Charlie’s best friend but ardently pursues Charlie, has no qualms about pinning two men with a long history against one another. And Charles’ wife is more a symbol than a partner in marriage to him; she serves as the personification of his ideals rather than a flesh and blood partner.
The objectification and lack of respect for women in The Big Knife is disappointing, even when considering the setting of the show. But after all, as Hoff says as the men discuss how to handle (or eliminate) the loose-lipped Dixie, “A woman with six martinis can ruin a city.” I’d be interested in seeing a play portraying that happening.