In the past few years, there has been a quiet Clifford Odets revival. Lincoln Center showed Awake and Sing and Golden Boy, both productions directed by, tone deaf, Bartlett Sher. Currently, the distinguished Roundabout Theatre Company presents The Big Knife.
The Lincoln Center productions in my opinion were miscast and wrongly conceived. Thus, I looked forward to The Big Knife, to really experience Clifford Odets in all of his glory. Doug Hughes’ direction is a well thought out production, but it is the casting once again that is its undoing. The central character, Charlie Castle, is a movie star, 12 years in the making, still going strong, and is up for a 14 year contract renewal. It is tearing him to pieces. He is tormented by the very real choices of Art and Commerce. Charlie loves the high life, the fame, success, and money. Marion, his wife, hates the life. If he signs the new contract she is gone. Add to the mix a young girl killed in a car accident covered up by the Studio and you have simple, yet complicated, real pain, Hollywood,choices, artistic and otherwise; the stuff of which drama is made.
Bobby Cannavale is a good actor who has done fine work in the past. He gives a solid and well rounded performance. It is not his fault that he doesn’t have the heft or the lyricism it takes to do Charlie Castle. I don’t believe him as a Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant movie star type or even as a guy who hung out with them. In the play, a past is alluded to when Charlie started out as a tiger who attacked his roles. The plays were in New York and he lived in Greenwich Village on Waverly Place; I don’t feel any of that past. He seems to have been born when the lights went up. Without this history, there is no present and the production is left with a hole in the center. You can’t act Charley Castle with just the words of Odets. Mr. Cannavale can’t carry it and so the play sags and we don’t have the opportunity to witness Clifford Odets, which is unfortunate, again.
The other force in the play is Marcus Hoff, the Studio Head. Richard Kind thinks that screaming equates with anger, passion and emotion. It doesn’t. He blows his wad in Act One so when he needs it in Act Three, he has nowhere to go. It is an ordinary performance. We would expect more. The women fare better, but not by much. All in all, it is the play that suffers. The play as written is powerful, insightful as well as entertaining. Odets’ words are grand. It sings if you can read the notes.
When we think of American playwrights, we think of Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. We don’t think of Clifford Odets. We should. James Agee, Pulitzer winning author, wrote of Clifford Odets, “He is obviously one of the very few dramatic poets alive.”
In this production of The Big Knife, it is as if we’re served champagne in plastic cups. His characters were full of life and breathed the fire of their hopes and dreams. They suffered the fumes of their failures. There is a moment towards the end of the play when Charlie’s friend, Hank, his Horatio, comes to say goodbye, “If you wrestle, Charlie, you may win a blessing.” Wrestle who? Wrestle the powers that be for the soul of America. That is the struggle the play is about. It’s Charlie’s struggle. It’s my struggle and it’s our struggle. That’s worth sitting in the dark and listening to.
I am profoundly grateful to the Roundabout for producing, The Big Knife, as I am to Lincoln Center, for producing Awake and Sing and Golden Boy. I hope interest in Clifford Odets is rejuvenated and that we will see many productions of his plays all over the country. As Linda Loman, Willy’s wife in Miller’s Salesman says, “Attention must be paid.” Attention must be paid to Clifford Odets.