The Big Knife
Minor Odets play is noir-ish fun
Raven Theatre presents
The Big Knife
Review by John Olson
Clifford Odets, like so many of his novelist and playwright contemporaries of the 1930s and 1940s, was lured out to Hollywood by the big studios to work as a screenwriter for big bucks. Soured by the experience, in 1949 he wrote The Big Knife, casting a studio head (and the studio system itself) as the heavies. From the beginning of the play, there’s no ambiguity about Odets’s intentions. As the action begins, Charlie Castle (Jason Huysman), a major movie star in the mold of a Gary Cooper (judging from the faux movie posters adorning the walls of his Beverly Hills home), Charlie is debating whether or not to sign a 14-year extension of his contract with the studio. His estranged wife Marion (Liz Fletcher) is urging him not to sign, telling Charlie the studio has stolen his soul. Before long, we learn that the studio has strangely rehired Charlie’s PR man (Mike Boone) who had killed a young boy in a drunken hit and run accident. It’s strongly suggested, and quickly revealed, that the PR guy took the fall for Charlie at the studio’s behest. It seems Charlie is one of the studio’s major financial assets and they will do nearly anything to protect that asset.
Starting from that point, where do you go? A bit farther, as it turns out, though the dramatic tension is not established until late in the second act. The arc doesn’t provide much of a hill for the characters to climb. The bad guys are bad throughout, the good guys are… well there barely are any good guys – mostly just bad guys and weak people. Our hero, Charlie Castle, is one of the weak ones. As the play progresses, he sinks further into the quicksand – first capitulating to the wicked studio head (Chuck Spencer) for the money, then later for sheer survival. He reacts to his situation, rarely takes any affirmative action and thus it’s difficult to root for him. There is an ultimate redemption, but not much of a journey along the way to keep us engrossed.
What we have instead is a collection of juicy genre supporting characters with which director Michael Menendian and company have great fun. It’s short of camp, but the characters are broadly drawn in a George Sanders/Joan Crawford sort of way. Spencer gives a controlled but chilling portrayal of the studio head, Hoff, and Greg Caldwell is absolutely evil as Hoff’s henchman, “Smiley” Coy. In slicked-back hair and JoAnn Montemurro’s intentionally tacky costumes, he’s as slimy and oily as a villain should be. His oiliness is matched by the spinelessness of the PR guy Buddy Bliss, played by Mike Boone as a total doormat, sacrificing his reputation to Charlie. Jennifer Dymit is a classic dumb blonde as the contract player Dixie Evans, who causes her share of trouble for Charlie, while Ms. Montemurro has a blast as the manipulative gossip columnist Patty Benedict, while Jen Short is the icy and unfaithful wife to Buddy Bliss. Even the supposed “good” guys (maybe “the better guys” or the “not so bad guys” would be more accurate) allow for some entertaining stereotypes. Nat Danziger, Charlie’s agent, is eager to have Charlie sign the big contract for the big 10% commission he’ll earn, but he ultimately shows loyalty to Charlie when things get really bad and Ron Quade is charmingly parental as Nat. Ian Novak plays the idealistic screenwriter (hmm…where did Odets get that inspiration?) who is selfish enough to try to steal Marion away from Charlie, but with enough integrity to not sleep with her first. Novak gives Hank Teagle a Cooper-ish straight arrow demeanor that seems only possible in the movies.
As Charlie, Huysman vacillates between a deliberately superficial charm and deep anxiety. Huysman is convincing in showing Charlie’s pain, and we pity Charlie, but the character as written by Odets is not really worthy of our empathy. His wife Marion is of the long-suffering brand – and though she’s ready to leave him, she remains steadfast in her love and concern for Charlie. Though these two are the central roles of the play, they’re largely thankless ones. The supporting players are more interesting.
The period pastiche Menendian achieves here is aided greatly by Ray Toler’s gorgeous mid-Century set, complete with the previously mentioned movie posters and paintings, created by Amanda Rozmiarek, and Mary O’Dowd’s props. Montemurro’s costumes give the procedures a sense of 1940s affluence that contributes to the pastiche.
Though The Big Knife was adapted as a 1955 feature film (with the intriguing cast of Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Shelly Winters and Rod Steiger); and will receive its first Broadway revival next Spring in a production starring Bobby Cannavale, I don’t believe it is, or in any case should be, ranked alongside Odets’ earlier work, like Awake and Sing! Odets’s points are too flatly stated and his characters too cardboard to be in that league. As a period piece, though, it has a noirish appeal that’s some fun if that’s what you’re looking for.
The Big Knife continues through November 11th at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3:30pm. Tickets are $36, and are available online through TicketTurtle.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at RavenTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Dean LaPrairie
Mike Boone (Buddy Bliss), Greg Caldwell (Smiley Coy), Jennifer Dymit (Dixie Evans), Liz Fletcher (Marion Castle), Jason Huysman (Charlie Castle), JoAnn Montemurro (Patty Benedict), Ian Novak (Hank Teagle), Ron Quade (Nat Danziger), Jen Short (Connie Bliss), Chuck Spencer (Marcus Hoff)
behind the scenes
Michael Menendian (director); Kristin Collins (asst. director); Kiley Morgan (stage manager); Conor Clark (asst. stage manager); Ray Toler (set); Kurt Ottinger (lighting); Melissa Schlesinger (sound design); JoAnn Montemurro (costumes); Mary O’Dowd (props, set dressing); Amanda Rozmiarek (scenic artist); Andrei Onegin (tech director); Adrian Rozendaal (asst. tech director); Justin Castellano (master electrician); Jacob Allen Wood (asst. electrician); Kristen Williams (dramaturg); Lis Fletcher (hair consultant); Kelly Rickert (graphic design/videography); Luke Millett (videographer); Dean LaPrairie (photos)