The Boston Phoenix
Joanne Woodward stabs Odets
THE BIG KNIFE, by Clifford Odets. Directed by Joanne Woodward. Set design by Michael Schweikardt. Costumes by Mimi O'Donnell. Lighting by Deborah Constantine. With Scott Cohen, Richard Kind, Dana Reeve, John Braden, Bruce MacVittie, Michael Pemberton, Stephen Barker Turner, Tracy Middendorf, Allison Mackie, Denise Lute, and Pun Boonyarata-Pun. On the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through June 28.
You have to applaud Joanne Woodward's audacity in choosing to revive Clifford Odets's play about working in the movies, The Big Knife. When you take on Odets, you embrace his proselytizing as well as his gift for creating a milieu, his hysteria (especially on the subject of Hollywood) as well as the sound dramatic shaping of his scenes, his gushing faux poetic passages as well as his almost unerring instinct for how actors work. Woodward's production of The Big Knife, which opens the Williamstown season in the compact, recently rechristened Nikos Stage, is a fascinating mix, triumphant in some scenes and lumbering in others. Some of the mistakes are Woodward's and the company's, but some are Odets's, and I'm not sure how the traps in this hugely ambitious play, which runs for a mostly engrossing three hours, could have been eluded.
Odets wrote the play for his friend and muse John Garfield, who played it on Broadway in 1949; the role of the movie star Charlie Castle, the decent-souled screw-up who has fallen prey to Hollywood, is a version of Garfield himself. (Jack Palance usurped it in the famous 1955 film version.) As the play begins, Charlie (Scott Cohen in the Williamstown production) is struggling to win back his wife, Marion (Dana Reeve), who swears she'll divorce him if he signs the ominous 14-year contract the studio chief, the formidable Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind), is waving in his direction. But Charlie doesn't have a chance against Marcus, who's holding the actor's worst indiscretion over his head -- a drunken car accident that resulted in the death of a child, which Charlie's pal Buddy Bliss (Stephen Barker Turner) took the rap for.
Dana Reeve is a smart, believable actress, but Marion is a conception, not a character: she's Charlie's good conscience. And as the dramatic stakes get higher, as the behavior of Marcus and his creepy right-hand man, Smiley Coy (Bruce MacVittie), ventures into the realm of gangsterism and the play marches toward its dreadful, overwrought finale, there's less and less that Reeve can do with the part. Far worse is the role of her suitor, the sage Irish writer Hank Teagle (Michael Pemberton), whom Odets bequeaths a club foot as a badge of unassailable virtue. Pemberton is pretty bad, but you have to feel sorry for any actor stuck with this doughy lump of a part.
Scott Cohen looks just about perfect as Charlie. (The costume designer, Mimi O'Donnell, does beautiful, understated work for him and indeed for all the actors.) Cohen also boasts a completely convincing sexual charisma, and in some scenes he hits exactly the right note -- like the moment when an anguished Buddy asks Charlie's advice on how to handle his wife (Allison Mackie), having no idea Charlie's slept with her. (Cohen looks like a pinned insect that's trying to crawl out of its skin.) But Odets's florid language often defeats him, and he comes across as less authentic than the supporting cast, some of whom -- MacVittie, Mackie, and especially John Braden in an almost flawlessly drawn portrait of Castle's loyal agent -- sound as if they were born speaking this stylized dialogue.
Richard Kind does too: in fact, no one on the stage is more skillful with Odets's language than he is. But the outsize, walrus-faced Kind, a wonderful performer familiar to TV audiences from Mad About You and Spin City, is miscast. You don't have to recall Rod Steiger's famous Marcus Hoff from the movie of The Big Knife to see that Kind simply doesn't convey the sense of menace that makes Marcus's employees quake in their boots. Odets doesn't tell us until after the contract scene why Charlie is too intimidated to refuse his signature, but we have to feel that Marcus is blackmailing him in unspoken ways. With Kind in the role, Charlie's caving in doesn't make sense.
Woodward's production has power and some poignantly staged moments. It's a very human rendering of the play -- especially when Braden is on stage, or Tracy Middendorf as the touching, Monroe-ish starlet Dixie Evans, whose small-scale integrity dooms her. (The cigarette girl Barbara Nichols played in the Odets film Sweet Smell of Success is another version of the same character.) And even when Woodward can't figure out how to sculpt a scene -- like the one where Marion tells Charlie she's just had an abortion -- or when, in the last half-hour, the drama seems to blow up in her face, the honesty of her effort to get at the heart of Odets's impossible play bespeaks a kind of nobility. This is the fourth Odets Woodward has mounted; the last one, Waiting for Lefty (in New York last year), was very affecting but received stupid, dismissive reviews. You can see from The Big Knife that they didn't daunt her. God love her. I hope she's foolhardy enough to try Awake and Sing! or Paradise Lost next time. They're tough too, but just think of the rewards.