The Big Knife, which opened April 16 at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, is Clifford Odets' attempt to balance the books for old, outstanding debts against backstabbing Hollywood, the town that reduced Broadway's golden-boy dramatist to humiliating hack assignments. His payback is ferocious, and you'll not encounter a more unsavory crew of Tinseltown denizens than the ones inhabiting this play.
They converge in the "playroom" of the Beverly Hills home of Charlie Castle, a box-office star, who is tending a three-ring circus of crises at once. It seems that his estranged wife, Marion, is threatening to leave him if he signs up for 14 more years with movie mogul Marcus Hoff, who bullies and blackmails to get his way. Given the skeletons in Charlie's closet, he's acutely vulnerable to Hoff's tactics, so he keeps knocking back the booze until only one honorable option seems acceptable to him.
In the first Broadway revival of this 1949 play, bitterness and melodrama abound. Director Doug Hughes bristled defensively when melodrama was mentioned by the press meeting him and his cast in the theatre's lobby after the opening-night show.
"I know melodrama is a pejorative for you guys, but I don't consider it pejorative," the director said. "Billy Wilder once said that melodrama is what critics call it when the audience actually cares what happens next. And I'm going to go with Billy Wilder on that. No, I think this is a play that can be played very legitimately, very truthfully. I don't assume some stylistic mojo when I got to work on it.
"I think it's a lost play by a great writer. I think it's one of his better plays, one of his most beautifully structured plays, and I think it's his most mature play. The easy common wisdom is that the great ones were the Depression-era plays, and the people who tell us what to think have given the plays Odets wrote as an adult short shrift.
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