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.
"He did hate Hollywood, but I think he used Hollywood to work out some things that he struggled with personally and struggled with as a citizen of our country."
The instigator of this project appears to be Bobby Cannavale, who stars as Castle. It's been on his to-do list for 16 years. "That's when I saw it at Williamstown," he said. "That's when I met Richard Kind, and we have been friends ever since.
"Joanne Woodward directed it, and I just couldn't move out of my seat when the show was over. It was very clever in that it was sort of a genre piece. I felt like I was watching a film noir—but these huge ideas sorta snuck into it, and these were ideas that really resonated with me. I was struck by the themes of the play. I had already been a fan of the fervent years and the idea of The Group Theatre—a time in this country before the war when that great president, FDR, rallied the troops and got people to come together and created all those great arts projects."
It helped, of course, that Charlie Castle was originated by an idol of Cannavale's. "Yeah, I'm a fan of Garfield's," he admitted. "I would have liked to have met him. He lived on the Upper West Side, in my neighborhood. He lived right down the block from me. He died too young. You know who lives in his building? Stephen Adly Guirgis lives in the building that John Garfield lived in. He lives right under him."
Guirgis wrote the play that got Cannavale a Tony nomination, The Motherf**ker With the Hat, so that fact strengthens his connection to John Garfield.
In the past 16 years, Cannavale would mention The Big Knife from time to time to various directors, and eventually he finally struck genuine interest. "About seven years ago, I did a play with Bobby—Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck—and we talked about doing it," Hughes recalled. "Now we're finally getting around to it. I've known the play about 20 years, but I never saw that production in Williamstown where Richard was supposed to be so great. I've always wanted to work with him, though. About a year ago he did a reading of it—I had cut the play down and did more work on it, with the approval of Walt Odets, Odets' son—and Richard read it superbly."
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For comedian Kind, Marcus Hoff is an extreme change of pace that proves he has acting chops above and beyond the ability to get a laugh. It is bombastic work, with size, depth and breadth. "As Doug directed me," he said, "the character really operates on many different levels. I come in Papa, nice, sweetheart—and I'm a snake. I'm a horrible, horrible, horrible man. A lot of the times when I get laughs, I don't think they're laughing at me. I think it's sort of a release of nervousness. 'Do I laugh?' 'Am I going with him?' 'Please don't be so awful.' That's fun to play."
Yes, he's open for more of the same. "I do plenty of these," the actor revealed. "I do all sorts of stuff, but nobody sees them because they are plays that I do in the hinterlands or stock, but nobody lets me do them on television or in films."
Another surprise bit of casting in The Big Knife is Marin Ireland, glamorously putting forth the role of the star's wife, and she looks terrific in the elegant vintage wardrobe that Catherine Zuber provided. "I love being in those outfits," she said.
"I think Marion is really a modern woman. She has got a lot of strength about her. She doesn't take a lot of [sh*t] from anybody. She's trying to hold her family together in the only way she knows how. She's very smart, but she's also really led by her heart. She's like an addict in that relationship she has with Charlie."
It would not be surprising that leftist Odets had a few run-ins with right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and that basically is how Brenda Wehle plays her: "I think he meant her to be an amalgamation of gossip columnists, but when I read about Hedda Hopper, it seemed much more Hopper to me. If I follow the leads from the playwright anyway, she's got a huge fan base. She's gotta turn it out. She's a busy woman. She's a moralist. She thinks she's important politically—but she really is."
Chip Zien comes on like a fireball as Charlie's emphatic, fast-talking agent—one of the play's few positive characters. "My own agents came backstage after the show, and I said that I was honoring them. They thought it was such a nice portrayal of a thoughtful agent who loves his client. I said, 'But that's how I feel about you guys.'"
One of the most negative characters is Hoff's ruthless deputy with the oily name of Smiley Coy. "Hey, I'm a happy fellow," lies Reg Rogers, who plays the guy constantly stirring the cauldron of conflict. "He's a mix all right, but he's a fixer as well. We had Odets' son down here, and he sat and chatted with us. Such a dear thing! Clifford Odets was so heartfelt of his work. Everything he touched he had serious beliefs."
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Ana Reeder plays one of several chippies who parade through Charlie's playroom—"She's just so bad, so unapologetically bad"—and she does it in a fetching red wig provided by Tom Watson. "It's fun being a redhead. My little sister is a redhead."
The most memorable tart is Dixie Evans, a contract player at odds with the system ("They louse you up and call you lousy!"), but it's a very pivotal part in the play, and it rated special billing in the 1955 movie version: "And Miss Shelley Winters."
"I never watched the movie, actually," said the play's Dixie, Rachel Brosnahan. "I hadn't seen it, and I didn't want to see it because I didn't want to be influenced.
"What a fun part to come in on. She has been introduced, and she's got this bitter scene where she has every emotion under the sun. She's laughing, she's crying, she's scared, she's happy—and then she disappears. It's a full character arc in one scene.
"This whole play has really been a trip. To make my Broadway debut in such esteemed company—Bobby, Marin—it's been a joy to come to work every day. There's such a youthful energy in the cast, and they're also so wonderfully supportive and talented. The benefit of being in one scene is you get to watch them."
The name-brand cast brought out a name-brand set of first-nighters: Neil Simon and Elaine Joyce, director Evan Cabnet; Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (who'll sing a Steven Mercurio piece inspired by Eugene O'Neill in Prague in July); two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith (coming next fall in The Glass Menagerie); Simon Jones (working on a Thomas Meehan workshop of Robin Hood: The Final Adventure as King John); Arian Moayed, acting couple late of Ten Chimneys, Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings,; Cass Morgan and Debra Monk of the original Pump Boys and Dinette; Dallas Roberts ("Just came to see Bobby [on] Broadway"); David Schwimmer (who just finished directing a half-hour NBC pilot with J.D. Simmons and Parker Posey called D.J.Nash); lyricist-director David Zippel; the star's son, Jake Cannavale of "Nurse Jackie"; Edward Hibbert; comedienne-producer Jamie deRoy and Tony Lo Bianco; a bearded Jason Butler Harner (who'll shoot a film in L.A. and then do "a play I'm really excited about"); Kate Jennings Grant; Laura Benanti (waiting to see if her series, "Go On," will go on a second season); and Steven Pasquale (who's playing Kelli O'Hara's husband in Far From Heaven June 2 at Playwrights Horizons); Madeline Brewer; writer J.T. Rogers ("at work on a play and a film"); Martha Plimpton; Morgan Spector from Harvey; Patricia McGregor and playwright Stephen Karam; director Moises Kaufman; Glengarry Glen Ross' Richard Schiff (in a hat, as perhaps an homage to the play's vintage); Stephen Lang (who just finished an ABC pilot, "Reckless," and will start a Joan Allen movie based on a Stephen King work called "The Good Marriage"); Debi Mazar; [title of show]'s Susan Blackwell; Trudie Styler sans Sting; director Michael Greif; Anne Kaufman; actor-playwright Michael Cristofer; "Uncle Mame" biographer Eric Myers; Omar Miller; composer Charles Strouse and wife Barbara; set designer-director Tony Walton and wife Jen; Tony Roberts; and Tovah Feldshuh.
Watch Playbill Video's highlights from the production: