I’ve never been too enthusiastic about Clifford Odets’ dated, left-wing didacticism, and even if The Big Knife leans closer to Sweet Smell of Success than Waiting for Lefty, it waters down the former’s cynicism with the latter’s heavy-handedness. Towards the end of the play, after identifying himself as a Hamlet, the Hollywood star Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) booms, “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. Only we hit them on the heads, under the hair—nobody sees the mark.” The obvious joke is irresistible: Odets is hitting us so hard on our heads that we walk out of the theater rubbing our wounds.
Charlie is mogul Marcus Hoff’s (Richard Kind) biggest asset, but at a time when he expected to renew his contract, his estranged wife, Marion (Marin Ireland) gives him an ultimatum: quit the business or the marriage is over. A former idealist (“I believed in FDR”), Charlie now spends his afternoons elbow bending at his bar and resisting but succumbing to a series of cheap lays, while a gaggle of Hollywood types honk in his ears: there’s Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick), the press agent who worships him; Buddy’s wife, Connie (Ana Reeder), who worships his body; Nat Danziger (Chip Zien), the agent who is about ready to give up; Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), Hoff’s shadow-stalking factotum. And for almost no reason, Charlie is served by an Uncle Tom butler, Russell (Billy Eugene Jones), who seems ecstatic just be allowed in the same room as his employer.
Odets’ Hollywood is a world where a picture of your dear departed mother comes from Central Casting and where “dishonest” means you don’t honor the bribes you’ve taken. In adapting Ernest Lehman’s novelette Sweet Smell of Success for film, and in focusing on a columnist instead of an actor, Odets hit all the right notes and the result is a masterpiece. But The Big Knife, written ten years earlier, feels like a regurgitation of stale tropes. The grizzled disaffection never quite catches and the sorrows of young Charlie play as largely narcissistic. In between Acts One and Two, director Doug Hughes ingeniously inserts a snippet of dialogue from one of Charlie’s hammy film noirs. And yet, trashy as it may be, it sure sounds like more fun than this. I’d take a second-rate Bogart to a third-rate Dane any day; when Charlie whines, “Could you ever know that all my life I yearned for a world and people to call out the best in me?” I am flabbergasted at how a World War II veteran could be so naïve.
But however weak the script, Mr. Hughes has been blessed with truly first-rate leads. Marion tells Charlie, “You used to grab your theater parts and eat ‘em like a tiger,” and, neck veins bulging, Mr. Cannavale does precisely that. The role is no Ricky Roma, but his raspy voice rails through his monologues with an exhausted sincerity conspicuously lacking from the author. Mr. Kind, shedding his schlemiel persona, is surprisingly intimidating as Hoff; almost always smiling, almost always genial, the smarm nevertheless exudes through his pores, and he occasionally pulls out of a white handkerchief to wipe it away.
I had thought we all agreed—I don’t know, half a century ago—that Odets was no longer relevant and certainly did not belong to the ranks of great American playwrights. And yet, The Big Knife follows last fall’s Golden Boy: two major revivals (and major disappointments) in under one year. “The theater’s a stunted bleeding stump,” Charlie complains, “Even stars have to wait years for one decent play.” Let’s hope this isn’t true—and let’s hope Mr. Cannavale and Mr. Kind quickly recover from this misstep.