Bobby Cannavale Fights Success in ‘The Big Knife’: Review

Bobby Cannavale has been a dominant presence on Broadway for several seasons. After a middling revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” last November, he’s back and looking sleekly feral in Clifford Odets’s “The Big Knife.”

This is the second revival this season of a play by Odets who died 50 years ago. Like “Golden Boy,” it’s a fable in which the price of success American-style is your soul.

Cannavale’s Charlie Castle first shows up in tennis whites, the embodiment of the leisure class, having traded the uncertainty and impoverishment of a New York stage actor for swashbuckling stardom in Hollywood.

The goodies include a beautiful wife Marion (Marin Ireland), a posh house (impeccably designed by John Lee Beatty with cathedral ceilings, natural wood, modern art and light reflecting off the pool) and a flock of fawning toadies to do his bidding.

Charlie’s done an admirable job of convincing himself he’s happy, but Marion seems to know better.

At the play’s opening, she has removed herself to their beach house in the hope that Charlie will have the guts not to renew his studio contract. She wants him to get back to the serious stuff.

Best Interests

His unctuous agent, Nat (Chip Zien, painfully perfect), is of course desperate for him to re-up, while professing to have only Charlie’s best interests at heart.

Art or mammon -- which will carry the day?

This is Odets, so the answer is going to be complicated, drawn out and melodramatic.

Cursed with the moral fire of Arthur Miller but not Miller’s poetry, Odets’s morality tales are pretty lumpish and heavy-handed.

Keen ears will hear in the 1949 “Big Knife” the voices and themes that will find sharper and even more acrid form in “Sweet Smell of Success,” his ferocious indictment of Hollywood that would set the bar for an industry’s self-contempt.

Director Doug Hughes and his fine cast haven’t been able to unstack the cards Odets sets against Charlie.

They include Charlie’s involvement in a violent death for which one of the toadies took the rap; the threat of retribution from Richard Kind’s brutal, vulgar studio chief; infidelity and abortion. Not even Marion is immune to the corrosive seductions of the good life.

None of this realism seems, well, real.

Swanky Clothes

We can, however, enjoy the pile-up of unpleasant plot turns as they play out on that luscious set, shimmeringly lit by James F. Ingalls. Best of all are Catherine Zuber’s swank clothes: double-breasted blazers and gabardine slacks for the goons; drapey, clingy dresses for the women.

Like many a Hollywood creation, “The Big Knife” has a come-hither look it can’t quite make good on.

Through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-719-1300; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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