Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Big Knife: Botching the Trick

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale in The Big Knife, at the Roundabout Theatre Company (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Staging Clifford Odets is tricky business, but Bartlett Sher’s production of his 1937 Golden Boy last fall showed that in the twenty-first century there’s still a way to use his language – stylized but firmly grounded in Stanislavskian psychological realism – to unleash theatrical power. Unhappily, the second Odets revival of the season, The Big Knife at the Roundabout, is a lame duck. Under Doug Hughes’ direction the actors either pretend the language isn’t heightened at all or else they seize on it as an excuse for overacting.

It’s true that The Big Knife, which was originally produced in 1949, isn’t in the same class as Golden Boy. No one remembers it now, except perhaps for Turner-philes who’ve caught the once-famous 1955 movie, directed by Robert Aldrich in his patented hothouse style and featuring strong performances by Jack Palance as the movie star who’s struggling between integrity and compromise and Rod Steiger as the narcissistic studio head who blackmails him into signing another long-term contract. The theme is roughly the same as that of Golden Boy (where a young violinist turns to boxing) but it’s more nakedly about Odets’s own struggle as he boomeranged between a Broadway career and a much more lucrative but less artistically satisfying one as a Hollywood screenwriter. And the writing is more florid. But the last time (to my knowledge) that it was dusted off, for a production at Williamstown in the summer of 1998, the director, Joanne Woodward, did yeoman work with her cast and got perhaps three-quarters of the play to work. Hughes does pick up the pacing, and that’s just as well: there isn’t much to linger over here.

Richard Kind and Cannavale (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Bobby Cannavale plays the protagonist, Charlie Castle – the role Odets wrote for his pal and fellow Group Theatre alumnus John Garfield – with a great deal of energy, and he looks smashing in the Southern-Cal leisure wear Catherine Zuber has designed for him. But he pushes way too hard. It’s a phony, self-conscious performance; you can see hear listening to his own voice. He has one fine moment, in the last act, when, facing off the mogul, Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind), he puts his face very close to his adversary’s and hisses. Otherwise Cannavale and Reg Rogers (as Hoff’s repugnant right-hand man, Smiley Coy, whose service for his boss doesn’t stop shy of homicide) seem to be engaged in a bad-acting contest. And Kind, he of the immense clown’s face, is just as bafflingly miscast in the role of Hoff as he was fifteen years ago when he played it at Williamstown. At the other end of the scale, barely acting at all, are Marin Ireland as Charlie’s wife and conscience Marion (who loves him deeply but is on the verge of leaving him), Brenda Wehle as the invasive gossip columnist Patty Benedict, Joey Slotnick as Charlie’s devoted yes-man Buddy Bliss and C.J. Wilson as Hank Teagle, the newly sober writer who, along with Marion, is meant as an emblem of the moral purity to which Charlie, in his best moments, aspires. Patty is a monster inflated by the industry off which she makes her slimy living, but Wehle doesn’t begin to suggest the character’s menace. Ireland, who was superb as a homegrown terrorist on the TV thriller Homeland, turns Marion into a whiner. The role is no prize – you can see Ida Lupino battling with it in the movie – but there has to be more that an actor can do with it. Ireland’s performance has no emotional conviction.

I didn’t buy Ana Reeder as Buddy’s hard-drinking tough-broad wife Connie, who’s dying to get in Charlie’s pants (though she looks uncannily like Jean Hagen in the film). But I felt sorry for her in the first act, when she’s roundly defeated by the slut-edition outfit Zuber has glued her into; it’s Zuber’s only misstep but it’s a doozy. There are, however, two excellent pieces of acting. Chip Zien gives a touching performance as Charlie’s sentimental agent, Nat Danziger, and as Dixie Evans, the studio contract player whose honesty in this nickel-plated culture marks her for tragedy, Rachel Brosnahan undergirds her baby-doll quality with a neurotic edginess. She has the best line reading in the show: sitting on Charlie’s sofa while he lounges in an easy chair, she queries him, “Hi, tiger. Can you give me a kiss by remote?” (It’s less a come-on than a bid for a little comfort; her life in Hollywood, where she talked her way into a contract but is repeatedly turned down for the roles that are supposed to go along with it, is all uphill.) Brosnahan would have been right at home with Sher’s gold-standard Golden Boy cast: she gets Odets. The production sure doesn’t.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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