A guy makes a deal with the devil in The Big Knife; he has his reasons. Afterwards, he feels very, very bad. The set-up is as old as Faust, but, as shaded by the great American playwright Clifford Odets in a 1943 play last revived on Broadway in 1949, the man who makes the bad deal is an acclaimed New York actor-turned-Hollywood star called Charlie Castle (né Charlie Katz). And the devil is the imperious Hollywood studio system itself, personified in all its strong-arming power circa 1948 by studio chief Marcus Hoff.
In the Roundabout Theatre Company’s swanky if ultimately time-dated production, directed by the redoubtable Doug Hughes, Bobby Cannavale plays Charlie opposite a blistering Richard Kind as Hoff. We know who the bad guy is meant to be, blackmailing his star into a long-term contract. (The money and glamour are great, elegantly communicated in John Lee Beatty’s gold-hued set, bedecked with modern art by the yard; the movies Charlie is expected to make are crap.) We know that California life has eroded Charlie’s marriage to his principled wife, Marion (Marin Ireland, simultaneously conveying support and end-of-her-rope disgust), and has turned him into a man capable of lying to his friend (Joey Slotnick), cheating with his friend’s wife (Ana Reeder), tormenting his agent (Chip Zien), and generally weakening his character and talent.
And yet. And yet something about the self-torturing theme — O the tragedy of the artist who sells out for fame and lucre! — combined with the vagueness and softness of Cannavale’s interpretation, tilts the interest in the devil’s favor. A vision of Hollywood Hills athleticism in a silky peacock-blue shirt and perfect trousers (the happy 1948-era costumes are by Catherine Zuber), Cannavale’s Charlie seems more stumped and unimaginative than stricken; as Ireland’s Marion warns and urges and despairs with a graceful economy of movement, this Charlie sits around like a lug. Kind, meanwhile, makes a brilliant bully, Hoff’s heft conveyed not only through the actor’s physical density (he’s a cold-eyed autocrat in a fancy suit), but also through the near daintiness with which he verbally shreds his opponents. And for thuggish back-up, Reg Rogers can’t be beat as the deliciously named Smiley Coy, Hoff’s enforcer, whose job description might as well read ”dirty work.” (The 1955 movie adaption, directed by Robert Aldrich, starred Jack Palance as Charlie, Ida Lupino as Marion, and Rod Steiger as Hoff.)
In 2013, the old Hollywood studio system is dead. (The closest thing to it is the talent-agency system.) In the age of spin and image control at the speed of Internet, the gossip-columnist power nexus is dead, too, with its ability to ”kill” a career dead in its tracks. The reason to watch The Big Knife now may be to appreciate the personal meaning it held for its author (Odets died in 1963); or to take a nostalgia-infused whiff of the sweet smell of success (Odets worked on the screenplay for that 1957 movie beaut of the same name, too) with its acrid undertones of the era; or to think big thoughts about how to square a purity of artistic impulse with the seductiveness of luxury and celebrity. Or, never mind that, to see Richard Kind steal the picture. B+
(Tickets: roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300)