In 1949 Clifford Odets, after years of cashing in on his early successes with the Group Theatre, returned to Broadway with The Big Knife, which was to be his bitter comment on the price he paid for leaving the theatre to take Hollywood money for turning material into screenplays for the masses.
That’s a long winded sentence I admit, but I must still be influenced by the many such in his play, for his characters, to a man and woman, are prone to sound off at length. The central character is Charlie Castle, nee Cass, who has scaled the Hollywood Heights so that he is, when we meet him, living in a castle of his own, Beverly Hills style, circa 1948. Movies are thriving, and Charlie is the most potent box office star at the studio run by the powerful Marcus Hoff (think Louis B.Mayer or MGM with a sprinkling of Harry Cohn of Columbia). It is contract time, and Hoff is determined to get Castle’s signature on a fourteen year multi-million dollar deal that will give him tons of money, script approval, and a $25,000 bonus for every picture released under Hoff’s banner. It’s an offer no one is his right mind can refuse.
However, there is a Mrs. Marion Castle, long married to Charlie. She remembers him as the idealistic theatre loving boy he was when they met, and she tells him it’s over between them if he signs the binding agreement. Charlie is the deer in the headlights. He does not want to lose his wife, who is presently estranged from him, living elsewhere with their young son Billy. But Hoff has made it clear that if his big star doesn’t stick with the studio, he will reveal the secret from their past that will send him to prison, and end his career forever in scandal-scared Hollywood.
Clearly this was Mr. Odets’ passionately felt attack on the film life he’d been living. This was to be his admission of guilt over the years he had wasted away in Lotus Land when his better self kept telling him he should be ashamed. Written in white heat, its language is much larger than its theme.
I recall seeing the original production of this play in 1949. John Garfield, at the height of his film career, played Charlie and he too seemed to be apologizing for having “sold out” to Hollywood, when his stage career was just beginning to bloom in the same Group Theatre in which Odets was house playwright. The accomplished actress Nancy Kelly played Marion, and she brought depth and conviction to a role equally overwrought in the writing. The sterling cast included J. Edward Bromberg as Hoff, the studio head. He is the actor who was plagued by the McCarthy era pogroms. Joan McCracken, better known for her work in musicals, but a highly regarded artist, played Dixie, the bit player who is doomed because she knows too much. Other distinguished players filled out the cast. But with all the star power, and the attention paid to the return of Odets to the stage, even with the added gloss of a Dwight Deere Wiman production under the direction of Lee Strasberg himself, a run of just 108 performances was all they could manage.
I felt then, and I feel more so now, the frenzy of the writing dwarfed the issues involved. It was difficult to feel sympathetic to Charlie as he struggled with his lavish life style, his magnificent home, his international celebrity. Odets has supplied a nasty Hollywood columnist to the mix in the fictional Patty Benedict, who tries to get Charlie to cater to her need for some juicy gossip during an interview early in the first act, but he is powerful enough to handle her, to defy her. Later, when Marion learns he has agreed to sign the long term contract, she causes such emotional turmoil in him that it leads to – no spoiler here — it leads to a very messy ending.
Bobby Cannavale was a good choice to play Charlie, for again and again he’s made his mark onstage with stunning performances. Doug Hughes is a fine director, who has done excellent work on a number of good plays from Doubt to The Royal Family.
Richard Kind, who plays Hoff, is a fine character actor who is most often seen in comedy, bringing big laughs to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Producers, The Tale of the Allergists’ Wife among many others. Chip Zien is well remembered as the Baker in Into the Woods.
Marin Ireland, who plays Mrs. Castle, was lacerating in Reasons to be Pretty. John Lee Beatty, whose range is limitless, here designs a home for the Castles that reeks of Beverly Hills magnificence that conveys beauty that is sterile and impersonal.
The management of the Roundabout, which brings us this production, has stated in the program that “the play is a searing look at the choices we make when the temptations of fame and money prove all too irresistible, and the consequences that we may or may not be able to live with.” The play clearly comes from Odets’ need to examine the choices he made when he was the bright young light of the Group Theatre in the 1930s.
It is written with a flaming pen, and this production falls prey to the dangers within it. Scene after scene is played at full pitch, everyone from all points of view are filled with conviction, and I, for one, felt assaulted. Mr. Cannavale as leader of the tormented group played at such full throttle that by the end of the matinee I attended, I found myself wondering “how is he going to be able to do this again tonight?” Mr. Kind resourcefully ran the gamut of emotions from x to z, barking every edict with the same ferocious energy. Chip Zien, usually cute and cuddly, here playing Charlie’s long time friend and agent, seemed to be yelling “Notice me!” a lot. Clearly no match for control freak Hoff, he finally collapsed and actually quit. Ms. Marin tried hard to soften the role as written, but only occasionally let us know she really did love Charlie, and prayed he would rediscover himself.
Odets went on to some interesting work in his later years. The Country Girl and The Flowering Peach were better plays. But if the Roundabout wanted to remind us that Clifford Odets was once a major force in American theatre, I wish they’d taken a look at Rocket to the Moon or even the one-act Waiting for Lefty which really launched him. They could have mounted that hot potato along with something light and frilly, something like Noel Coward’s Red Peppers, which is as silly as Lefty is serious, and both from major playwrights, writing at the same time.
The Big Knife is onstage through June 2, 2013 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York, NY, 10036.
Details and tickets.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: