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Friday, 26 April 2013 10:13

Broadway Review: THE BIG KNIFE

Written by
Richard Kind, Bobby Cannavale and Chip Zien (l-r) Richard Kind, Bobby Cannavale and Chip Zien (l-r) Photo: Joan Marcus

Clifford Odet’s The Big Knife, currently being revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company, is a searing drama that hasn’t been seen on Broadway since it originally opened over 60 years ago.  The new production, directed by Doug Hughes takes off like one of those big giant lumbering birds that don’t usually fly very well.  The pace of the play is slow to begin but does eventually gain some momentum.

Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), a star actor and product of the studio system, is being strong-armed into signing a new 14-year contract that he doesn’t want to sign.  His wife Marion (Marin Ireland), from whom he is presently separated, doesn’t want him to sign the contract either. 

Neither Charlie nor Marion could be considered faithful to each other.  Both of them have had their dalliances, perhaps hers are more in response to his.  But Marion hopes that Charlie will give up his philandering and settle down with their boy and not make any more movies.

Charlie and his long-time friend and publicist Buddy Bliss (Joey Slotnick) have been through a lot together and their friendship has been tested.  Buddy just got out of prison after serving nine months.  He was covering for Charlie who killed a young girl in a drunk-driving accident.  How does Charlie thank him, by sleeping with his wife Connie (Ana Reeder)? 

Charlie’s producer, Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) is pressing Charlie to sign the new contract.  Hoff knows about the car accident and the cover up and isn’t above using it as leverage to get Charlie to sign the contract.  Hoff uses threats, guilt and even a round of fake tears that eventually get Charlie to re-sign his contract.  Hoff had an ace up his sleeve, he knew that there was a young actress in the car with Charlie the night of the accident, Dixie (Rachel Brosnahan).  The studio has kept her in check with a studio contract but she is beginning to drop hints about the incident.  She was a loose cannon that needed cleaning up — mob style.

Both Cannavale and Ireland’s performances register as tentative.  Neither of them ever completely inhabits their respective role.  Cannavale eventually gains some momentum, though one never feels confident in his existence as a mega movie star.  Unfortunately, Ireland never lays claim to her role nor makes it hers.  She delivers lines with the same monotonous inflection at the end of each sentence.  The lack of dynamics in her vocal quality undercut her performance in the role. 

There are some excellent performances in this production.  As studio boss Hoff, Richard Kind exquisitely embodies the smarmy studio executive who is himself, an actor.  Chip Zien is superb as Charlie’s nebbish manager, Nat.  Zien plays Nat with a firm grasp of Nat’s weakness for continually needing to please others.  As the starlet, Dixie, Rachel Brosnahangives a perfect sense of innocence, indomitability and chutzpah.  Reg Rogers is Hoff’s “muscle” — a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

The single unit set by scenic designer John Lee Beatty captures the Hollywood splendor of 1948, as do the costumes by Catherine Zuber.  The lighting by James F. Ingalls was noticeable, and not in a good way.  As the actors moved across the stage you could see the sharp edge focus of individual lighting instruments.  It was extremely distracting.

Reminding us of our rich theatrical heritage is one of the things that we rely on companies like Roundabout to do.  I applaud them for taking on this project, I just wish this had been a better production with stronger lead actors.

View full production credits at

Additional Info

  • Theatre: American Airlines Theatre
  • Theatre Address: 227 West 42nd St. New York, NY 10036
  • Show Style: Play
  • Previews:: March 22, 2013
  • Opening Night: April 16, 2013
  • Closing: June 2, 2013
Last modified on Friday, 26 April 2013 16:59