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Roundabout Theatre Company Presents "The Big Knife" at the American Airlines Theatre
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Roundabout Theatre Company Presents "The Big Knife" at the American Airlines Theatre

- Backstage with the Playwrights

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Roundabout Theatre Company
Todd Haimes, Artistic Director
Harold Wolpert, Managing Director
Julia C. Levy, Executive Director

The Big Knife

By Clifford Odets
Directed by Doug Hughes

Rachel Brosnahan, Bobby Cannavale, Marin Ireland
Billy Eugene Jones, Richard Kind, Ana Reeder, Reg Rogers
Joey Slotnick, Brenda Wehle, CJ Wilson, Chip Zien

At the
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 47th Street

Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Original Music & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson
Production Stage Manager: Winnie Y. Lok
Production Management: Aurora Productions
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
“The Big Knife” General Manager: Denise Cooper
Press: Polk & Co.
Assoc. Managing Director: Greg Backstrom
Director of Marketing & Audience Dvpt.: Tom O’Connor
General Manager: Sydney Beers
Founding Director: Gene Feist
Assoc. Artistic Director: Scott Ellis

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
April 24, 2013 Matinee

Thirty minutes into today’s matinee, my guest gestured that she had no idea what was happening onstage. By intermission, I could hear a variety of confused comments and complaints, such as “sound is trapped”, “what’s the deal with Buddy?”, etc. Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife, a 1949 play, being revived for the first time, is not a well-known plot, and in this Roundabout Theatre Company production, one must lean forward and read between the lines to understand the enigmatic story line. Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale) is an agonized creature, an actor about to sign a 14-year extension on his Hollywood studio contract. Money is on the table, in Charlie’s Beverly Hills “playroom” aka bar, but the studio chief, Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind), late in the play, wants to “bump off” Charlie, or “marry him off” to a dame, Dixie Evans (Rachel Brosnahan), who’s threatening to tell authorities a long-held secret about Charlie and Buddy. Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick) is an old pal of Charlie, who claimed guilt for Charlie’s crime of accidental murder. Buddy went to jail to save Charlie’s Hollywood reputation. In this play, Charlie thanks Buddy by bedding Buddy’s wife, Connie (Ana Reeder). Charlie’s wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), is now estranged with their son, but shows up for the action to woo Charlie away from the contract extension.

Mixed in this mayhem are Smiley Coy (Reg Rogers), Hoff’s studio heavy, Russell (Billy Eugene Jones), Charlie’s loyal butler, Patty Benedict (Brenda Wehle), a gossip columnist trying to get a story on Charlie and Marion, Nat Danziger (Chip Zien), Charlie’s outmaneuvered agent, and Hank Teagle (CJ Wilson), Marion’s secret lover, who seems the most grounded character onstage. Doug Hughes’ direction keeps the plot elusive almost until the curtain, as the actors don’t walk stage front or face the audience enough, and as the dialogue is too rapid and mangled to underscore the tension. However, at contract-signing time, all the stakes are loudly in play, with a direct confrontation between Hoff and Charley, with Marion begging “no” and Smiley grimacing “yes”, and finally with Charlie tortured, as Hoff holds the winning hand. Bobby Cannavale is a gorgeous actor, whose facial muscles tighten with tension. His hair seems to bristle, his hands stiffen, and his gaze can burn holes in his tormentor. Richard Kind is a fascinating and entertaining actor, usually the comic, but here the cannibal, who eats Charlie’s future for lunch. Ms. Ireland and Mr. Cannavale have very little chemistry, all the more apparent when I saw the 1955 movie poster of this play with Jack Palance and Ida Lupino, heat emanating from the page. Had Ana Reeder been cast as Marion, the marital conflict would have been palpable. Ms. Brosnahan, as the briefly seen, needy, immature trouble-maker, Dixie Evans, is an actor to watch.

John Lee Beatty’s “playroom” set is highlighted by a huge luxurious bar, giant glass windows overlooking some palms and scenery, cobblestone walls, a fireplace, and stylish cushiony chairs. Catherine Zuber has Mr. Cannavale in tennis whites and a suit as sleek as the furnishings, with the hotter women in tight skirts that reveal every wiggle. When Connie Bliss climbs the stairs to Charlie’s bedroom, holding her heels and a liquor bottle, the costuming tells it all. Ms. Ireland is dressed in a looser-fitting, bland cotton dress. James F. Ingalls’ lighting shifted nicely with time of day, but David Van Tieghem’s sound, as mentioned above, caught words like the bug zapper on the set. This revival could be re-staged for a smaller house, to bring the audience closer to the drama. Mr. Odets’ legacy deserves another break for this remarkable Hollywood tale.

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at