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‘Big Knife’ disappoints despite traditional play structure

Courtesy of United Artists

In 1948, theater critic Walter Kerr published his first piece in The New York Times, an editorial on the rise of the three-act play and its damage. The next year, Clifford Odets’ three-act “The Big Knife” debuted at the National Theater. Now, the three-act has long been dead and buried. Doug Hughes directs a cast starring Bobby Cannavale and featuring an excellent, menacingly ridiculous Richard Kind. Unfortunately, this production cannot save itself from its own self-importance, as the characters inexorably march toward their doom for no better reason than what awful people they are.

Cannavale plays Charlie Castle, Hollywood’s biggest star, an alcoholic and womanizer. In the first act, we’re given the suggestion that he was involved in a car accident, killing a child. How the Louella Parsons stand-in (Brenda Wehle) didn’t sniff this out faster than the audience goes unexplained.

A three-act play sounds like it could logically correspond to the three acts of any dramatic structure, but it does not. Odets muddled through these problems, writing a play that chicanes through minor turns instead of hitting us with a big, end-of-act-one reversal.

What’s worse than  “Knife’s” sluggish progression through a fairly standard two and a half hours is the way it pales in comparison to some of the great post-noir, industry-centric films of the 1950s, such as Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success.”

“Success” features the kind of dialogue that stays with you. Certainly “Knife” includes something similar. Lines like “A woman with six martinis can ruin a city,” and “Never underestimate someone just because you don’t like them,” stand out. But “Knife,” at least in its current incarnation, is all arsenic and no cookie. The dialogue has the same bite, just with less wit pulling you in, and the characters are so wretched that when murder enters the discussion you wonder why foregone conclusions are even worth entertaining.

At the time, it wasn’t rare for a lauded New York playwright to find himself dragged into the sort of unpleasant Hollywood machinations “The Big Knife” draws on. One such playwright was Odets, who wrote the much better script for “Sweet Smell of Success.”

“The Big Knife” is presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company and is playing now through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 17 print edition. Alexander Tsebelis is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]

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‘Big Knife’ disappoints despite traditional play structure