NEW YORK — The darker side of mid-20th-century Hollywood glamour found movie stars struggling to retain their identities and souls despite the iron grip of the all-powerful studio and publicity machines. Perversions and crimes that would reflect badly on their wholesome public images were routinely covered up for the sake of the studios' revenues.
Being true to oneself is a key issue in Clifford Odets' dark play, "The Big Knife," written in 1948 during the flush of postwar success, when America's focus turned toward capitalism. A strong, noirish production starring Bobby Cannavale opened Tuesday night on Broadway, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.
Doug Hughes stages repeated dynamic moments during the period drama, smartly retaining much of Odets' stilted yet colorful dialogue. The more seasoned cast members relish their opportunities to melodramatically sneer, flounce and bluster as required.
Odets' popular early plays promoted social justice, including "Waiting for Lefty," and "Awake and Sing!" His drama "Golden Boy" about a violinist drawn to the big money of boxing, enjoyed a Broadway revival earlier this season. "The Big Knife" hasn't been produced as much as those plays, but the fine ensemble in this Roundabout production brings new life to the age-old story of artists trapped by the glitter of commercial success.
Cannavale charismatically portrays flashy, popular leading man Charlie Castle, who feels ensnared by his success as a cartoonish action-adventure performer. Cannavale sensitively enacts Charlie's inner doubts about how he may have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for fame and fortune, while reciting Odets' overblown language with increasing brio.
Charlie ruefully refers to himself in the third person, as when he tells his estranged wife, "Listen, monkey, I know I'm a mechanical, capering mouse. But Charlie Cass is still around in dribs and drabs – don't you think he'd like to do a fine play every other year? Don't you think I want our marriage to work?"
Richard Kind gives a dynamic performance as mega-maniacal studio executive Marcus Hoff. To Hoff, manipulating his employees' lives is his perfect right, and even ordering a murder to protect his interests is all in a day's work. Kind forcefully imbues Hoff with unctuous, impassioned self-confidence and a callous disregard for humanity.
Marin Ireland has a difficult role as Charlie's brutally frank, emotionally exhausted wife Marion. Ireland is so naturalistic an actress that she can't always pull off the artifice in the dialogue, as when calling Charlie "Husband dear" or "Handsome." However, she's quite moving and effective when Marion is speaking honestly with her husband.
The excellent supporting cast includes Brenda Wehle, a malevolent delight as scandal-sniffing gossip columnist Patty Benedict. Joey Slotnick brings underlying despair to the role of Buddy Bliss, Charlie's nervous but loyal publicity manager. Chip Zien warmly enacts Nat Danziger, a sincere, longtime father figure to Charlie and Marion, while Reg Rogers wears a smarmy air as ironically-named Smiley Coy, who executes Hoff's every controlling whim.
The dark secret hidden by Charlie and his various handlers dominates the final, melodramatic scenes, when Charlie ruminates bleakly, "This whole movie thing is a murder of the people."
Adding to the general air of decadence are Ana Reeder, exuding heat as Buddy's voluptuous, immoral wife, and Rachel Brosnahan as a naively impudent, blackmailing starlet. C.J. Wilson makes a brief but notable appearance as Marion's solid, idealistic lover, and Billy Eugene Jones is discreetly effective as a loyal servant to the Castles.
Odets was a left-wing New Yorker eventually transplanted to Hollywood, where he churned out scripts within the Hollywood studio system. While he surely enjoyed skewering the power and immorality of studio executives in "The Big Knife," he also probably heard about some real-life scandals that may inform this cynical play.
John Lee Beaty's set is an elegantly handsome, airy Los Angeles living space, and Catherine Zuber's often-glamorous dresses and sharp suits add to the glossy period atmosphere. "Try to be happy – this isn't a Russian novel," Charlie playfully tells Buddy. But by the dramatic conclusion, it's clear that Odets' script was informed both by sensational tabloid headlines and the tragic hubris found in great Russian literature.