Bobby Cannavale and Ana Reeder in THE BIG KNIFE. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: The first Broadway revival of a lesser-known work by a literary icon, featuring a cast filled with stars of the stage and screen.
I have to start out by saying how excited I was to see The Big Knife. I generally love everything that Roundabout produces, and we're talking about a revival of a classic play with a star-laden cast and a kick ass director. What's not to love, right? Let's just say that I was kind of let down.
Clifford Odets, who redefined the American stage during the 1930s, wrote Awake and Sing!, Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy, and The Country Girl (all of which are often required reading at theatre schools across the country) as well as penning the screenplay for the iconic film, The Sweet Smell of Success, which later inspired a Broadway musical. So, needless to say, I had very high expectations for the first Broadway revival of The Big Knife which hasn't graced the Great White Way since 1949 and is probably unknown to a majority of theatregoers. After seeing this current production, I can see why. It's not that it's a bad play, so much that it is an extremely dated play and I don't think that it stands the test of time as well as Odets' other crowning achievements. The Big Knife centers on the life of Hoft-Federated studios' biggest star, Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) during the Golden Age of Hollywood when studio executives had all the power and owned the lives and careers of their biggest stars. With his contract up for renewal, the studio executives have Castle backed into a corner since they previously covered up a past mistake that could have ended his reign on Hollywood. Now, a woman has come forward with insider knowledge that threatens not only Castle's career, but his life as he knows it. How far will Castle go to protect his reputation? Will he leave Hollywood for good? Will his rocky home situation finally be resolved and he get the happy ending that we all so desperately want? These are the questions at the heart of The Big Knife. While it may seem like an action-packed Hollywood mystery, it's more of a slow burn that examines the questions of what it means to be successful, and what we do when we finally achieve what it was that we always thought we wanted but discover that we want out.
Though I didn't love The Big Knife, I didn't really dislike it either. While the story might be slightly predictable, dated, and drawn out, the performances are top-notch. Bobby Cannavale of Will and Grace and Boardwalk Empire fame, does a remarkable job of carrying the show and taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster as he faces possible ruin in his professional and personal life. Richard Kind (Marcus Hoft) sheds his likable Spin City and Mad About You persona and skillfully creates a a ruthless snake of a studio head who has Castle exactly where he wants him. Chip Zein (Nat Danziger) is completely lovable as Castle's doting agent who puts his client's happiness before his own. Making her Broadway debut, Rachel Brosnahan, holds her own with the likes of her more experienced castmates portraying the much talked about Dixie Evans in one pivotal scene.
So, as I've said, nothing about The Big Knife is glaringly wrong. Catherine Zuber's period costumes are beautiful. John Lee Beatty's set captures 1940s Hollywood to a tee. The cast is great. Doug Huhes's direction is good. The play itself is just kind of...eh. If you are HUGE fan of classical Hollywood cautionary tales and fables, The Big Knife just might be your favorite play of the season. If you want to see some fine ensemble work on a rarely produced play, go see The Big Knife. I applaud Roundabout for pushing the envelope and producing work that New York audiences don't rarely see. That being said, not all of their productions can be home runs. Some have to be solid base hits, if you will, and that is exactly the case with The Big Knife. Will it be remembered seasons from now as a great revival? Probably not, but it probably won't be remembered as a terrible revival either. Not a complete strike out, not a home run, but a solid base hit.
(The Big Knife plays at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, through June 2, 2013. Performances are Tuesdays at 8PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM. Tickets are $42-$127 and can be purchased at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300. For more show info visit roundabouttheatre.org.)