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The Big Knife

Bobby Cannavale stars as a conflicted movie star in Doug Hughes' lumbering revival of Clifford Odets' forgotten drama. logo
Chip Zien, Bobby Cannavale, Richard Kind, and Reg Rogers in a scene from The Big Knife
© Joan Marcus

It's been more than 60 years since Clifford Odets' Hollywood drama The Big Knife has seen the footlights of Broadway. A play about how the choices we made when we were younger can come back to haunt our older selves, the piece is best known for its 1955 film adaptation starring Jack Palance and Ida Lupino. The Roundabout Theatre Company production stars Bobby Cannavale and is directed by Doug Hughes at the American Airlines Theatre. While it is fascinating to rediscover the searing work, one can't help but wish this generally rudderless production was sharper.

Set in July 1948, Odets' drama follows a few weeks in the life of Charlie Castle, Hollywood's hottest movie star in a crisis of conscience after separating from his wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), and is contemplating resigning his contract with the Hoff-Federated film studio — for a whopping fourteen years. He's ready to bow out. Marion wants him to. But Charlie sold his soul to the studio years earlier after they helped him cover up a potentially career-ending disaster.

Cannavale, whose desire to do the play was partially the impetus for the production, is a natural for Charlie, with movie-star good looks and a natural likability and presence. On John Lee Beatty's airy Hollywood manse set and in Catherine Zuber's stunning period costumes, he looks like he's jumped out of the society pages of an old magazine. But while he has Charlie's charm and charisma down pat, he's missing the inner conflict that torments the character and seals his fate. Only in the third act is it ignited; but then, only in the third act does the production come to life.

Odets' play is an ultra-slow boil, and Hughes' production plods along without picking up much steam. Crucial roles are miscast; Cannavale and the usually reliable Ireland don't have much in the way of chemistry, and she similarly doesn't really dig underneath the character's surface. In the important role of young actress Dixie Evans, who shares Charlie's secret and can ruin everything by revealing it, Rachel Brosnahan is overly fussy, with a (purposeful) Lina Lamont "I can't stanhm" accent that ends up in the way of her diction. C.J. Wilson, as Hank Teagle, Charlie's brooding author friend with the hots for Marion, fares better, as does Chip Zien as Charlie's agent, Nat Danziger. Zien is particularly impressive in his third-act blow-up, an intense, full-bodied screaming match that ends with his head turning shades of purple no one knew existed.

In the end, it's Richard Kind who delivers the most fascinating performance. The comic character actor, best known for television roles on Spin City, Mad About You, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, gets to show off his dramatic chops as high-powered studio head Marcus Hoff, the type of guy who could be your best friend until you look at him the wrong way. Kind's calculating work is exactly the opposite of what you'd expect him to deliver, and it's thrilling to watch him explore his dark side. If only the entire production had a similar edge.