In December, Broadway luxuriated in a muscular revival of "Golden Boy," a pivotal 1937 period piece that brought Clifford Odets his first uneasy fame and fortune as a New York playwright with a conscience. Three years later, Odets went Hollywood and, by the time he wrote "The Big Knife" in 1949, he was both seduced and self-disgusted by his cushy, spirit-crushing life in the studio system.
He had reason for concern. "Big Knife" ran only three months, despite John Garfield as Charlie Castle, Odets' idealized stand-in, a studio megastar torn between honor and the big time. Revived for the first time, now with Bobby Cannavale as what a character aptly describes as an "exuberant brooder," this is a mess of a morality melodrama -- overwritten and under-nuanced, wallowing in classic pact-with-the-devil conflict in the style of late-night scandal-sheet noir.
And I'm not a bit sorry to have seen it. It is hard to know if any director could have made "Big Knife" seem less overwrought or made Odet's huge mouthfuls of polysyllabic words flow with less self-consciousness than Doug Hughes manages in this lavish production. I've decided not to blame him.
Cannavale, who practically stole "Glengarry Glen Ross" from Al Pacino late last year, is riveting in everything he plays these days. His Charlie, debauched yet strangely sweet, wrestles suavely with the character's contradictions and inner demons as studio bosses blackmail him into signing for another 14 years. The actor seems awfully modern, but we can almost believe that Charlie isn't really a philandering phony. The poor dashing darling is just weak.
Marin Ireland has a lithe, accessible dignity as Charlie's longtime wife, who threatens to leave if he signs the contract. But the real period style comes from the character actors. Richard Kind plays viciousness with an old-world smile and a ruthless motormouth as the studio head, while Chip Zien breaks with eager-to-please agony as Charlie's agent.
The mansion, designed by John Lee Beatty, contrasts the brutality with lots of soft sunlight and blond wood. Catherine Zuber's sleek costumes, with truly enviable footwear, make 1949 look better than we were ever told.
As a bookend with the superior early "Golden Boy," this seriously flawed but perversely enjoyable artifact is Odets' own cautionary tale.
WHAT "The Big Knife"
WHERE American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.
INFO $42-$127; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Mess of an Odets melodrama, but perversely enjoyable