By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
In the Thirties, Clifford Odets was famous as an agit-prop dramatist (Waiting for Lefty) and as a passionate if self-righteous Marxist (Awake and Sing!). Then he went to Hollywood, fell face down into the lap of luxury, and wrote screenplays. And then he became one of many playwrights who love to hate Hollywood, where “they murder the highest dreams and hopes of a whole great people with the movies they make.” It’s New York vs. Los Angeles, it’s noble poverty vs. decadent opulence. It’s an old story, and Odets’ melodrama about how Tinsel Town kills talent, The Big Knife, is one of the oldest.
Last performed on Broadway more than sixty years ago, somebody at Roundabout Theatre Company must have thought it was a good idea to revive this moldy-oldy, assemble an impressive cast, give it a glamorized production under Doug Hughes’ direction, and see what happened. The result: nothing.
The production’s star, Bobby Cannavale, dressed in tennis whites or a tuxedo, is not only miscast, but his current hot-stuff career gives the lie to the play’s point: it’s no longer an us-vs-them game. Cannavale is “a star of stage and screen” as they used to say back in Odets’ day, winning acclaim off-Broadway and on, in movies, and on television. He can do slick (Glengarry Glen Ross) or sweet (The Motherf**ker With the Hat), he can do gay (Will & Grace) or mean (Boardwalk Empire). What he can’t do, try though he does, is preachy and corny. It doesn’t seem possible to plausibly play a role in which the character self-describes as “The warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope” and make us feel his broken idealism.
Cannavale plays Charlie Castle, a movie star in thrall to his studio because of a hit-and-run accident years before (on Christmas Eve, natch) that somebody else went to prison for. The head of studio is Marcus Hoff, a self-aggrandizing role so over-the-top that it’s a wonder Richard Kind makes him so believable. His slimy henchman, played by the excellent Reg Rogers, whose job it is to keep Hoff from realizing how viciously immoral they are, appalls Charlie Castle’s wife (Marin Ireland) when they propose murder as a solution to an imminent scandal. There is an assortment of producers, agents, wives, friends, and lovers creating a spectrum of betrayal. Not a single character is complex enough or developed enough to be interesting.
The end of Act One gives us this hackneyed bit: a drunken Charlie, tuxedo tie undone, tells his friend’s voluptuous wife (Ana Reeder) to “Go home.” He staggers up the snazzy suspended staircase, and both the stagger and the staircase are reminiscent of any number of old movies. After a brief pause, the sexy blonde grabs a bottle of Scotch and follows him upstairs. Curtain. It’s a wonder we didn’t all laugh, since as a parody it’s just about perfect.
When the playwright gives Charlie Castle a line like, “I’m an imitation of what I was ten years ago,” Odets must have been speaking from the heart.
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, through June 2. Tickets $42-127. Information: (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org