This review of The Billboard Players' production of "The Big Knife" by Clifford Odets at the Community Church of East Williston was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Big Knife
The Billboard Players
Community Church of East Willison (45 East Williston Avenue, East Williston, NY)
The Big Knife was written by Clifford Odets. It premiered on Broadway at the National Theatre on February 24, 1949 and closed on May 28, 1949 after 109 performances. It was made into a film in 1955. Its first Broadway revival was produced by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre opening there on April 16, 2013 and closing on June 2, 2013. Clifford Odets, an American playwright, screenwriter and director, was a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party. The message of his first play, the one-act Waiting For Lefty, which opened on January 5, 1935 at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City, can be summed up as "workers of the world unite!". Despite his "noble ideals" to write about the plight of the common man, one could say he compromised his integrity when, in 1936, he went to Hollywood to write for the very studio system he criticizes in this play. In addition, just like Charlie Castle, the main character in The Big Knife, he also cheated on his wife and probably participated in creating "art" he was not proud of. In essence, he compromised his integrity in many aspects of his life and then blamed "Hollywood" and the profit motive for his personal choices and moral failings. Finally, in May 1952, Odets was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He avoided being blacklisted by cooperating with the Committee and giving them the names of Communist Party members he knew. After that, Odets was accosted in the street and snubbed in Hollywood restaurants. His productivity declined and he was allegedly "tormented by public reaction to his testimony" until his death in 1963.
In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle is a very successful Hollywood actor under contract to Hoff-Federated Studios. He owns a large home and beach house, spends money with little self-control and drinks alcohol to drown out his unhappiness about making films he doesn't believe are substantive and artistic enough for his taste. He casually cheats on his wife Marion, a self-righteous, pill-popping moralist, who has threatened to leave him if he signs a new fourteen-year, 3.744 million dollar contract with Hoff-Federated, but even though he claims to love his wife, he is also addicted to his current lifestyle and the fame that comes with it. So much so that when he kills a child driving drunk on Christmas eve with Dixie Evans, one of his many lovers, in the car he lets Marcus Hoff of Hoff-Federated Studios manage the crisis by making a deal to let his friend Buddy Bliss take the rap and go to prison for him. Dixie Evans got a contract with Hoff-Federated in return for keeping quiet and Buddy Bliss was hired back as a Publicist after serving his prison term. Charlie Castle pays his buddy back by sleeping with his wife Connie, and only grows the slightest backbone when Smiley Coy, Hoff's henchman, suggests that Dixie Evans may have to be "disposed of" if she doesn't stop hinting she knows something more about what happened the night of the accident. One must be committed after all! As Smiley Coy's character says, "Once you scheme, you marry the scheme and the scheme's children."
One of the best lines in the play is uttered by Patty Benedict, played by Sharon Levine, who when interviewing Charlie Castle for her gossip column, got a response from Buddy Bliss, his publicist. Ms. Benedict's retort was, "I want my gossip from the horse's mouth, not his ass." Marion Castle would rather her husband work in New York City acting in the theatre because she views Hollywood as being an "atmosphere of flattery and deceit" but her husband views theatre as "a stunted, bleeding stump where you wait for years for a good part." As for knowing what deceit is, Marion is an expert. She admits she just recently had an abortion without even telling her husband she was pregnant and she blatantly hints she is having an affair with Hank Teagle, one of her husband's best friends. One of the only stable relationships in the play is that between Charlie Castle and his agent, Nat Denziger, both who appear to have a genuine love for one another. They call each other "darling" and "lovey" but not in a manner you might describe as being sexual in nature. One of the weirdest lines in the play is "Life is a queer little man," by which I suspect Odets means that life is difficult to understand and full of twists and turns off the straight and narrow road. One such twist occurs at the end of the play when Charlie Castle promises his wife he will "make her happy starting tonight," which turns out to be one promise he actually keeps.
The best performance in this production is by Timothy F. Smith, who played Marcus Hoff. Mr. Smith has a very commanding stage presence and his character was given the most substantive lines by Odets. Michael Wolf is extremely believable as Nat Denziger, Charlie's Jewish agent. I have known many agents and managers cast in the same mold and Mr. Wolf perfected the mannerisms and speech cadence required for this part. I was very displeased with the performance of Diane Mansell as Marion Castle. It appeared as if she was more committed to methodically delivering her lines than to actually acting in the scenes. The rest of the cast did more than a fine job in their respective roles; John Carrozza was Charlie Castle, Joe Montano played Buddy Bliss, Joe Pepe was Smiley Coy, Al Carbuto played Hank Teagle, Kim Kaiman was Connie Bliss, Liz Bisciello played Dixie Evans, Sharon Levine was Patty Benedict, and Andy Minet played the servant, Russell. Special compliments are due Louis V. Fucilo, who directed the production and was responsible for the beautiful and detailed Set Decoration.
The Big Knife is a long, wordy play with many characters you will not respect or identify with. It also reflects opinions about the studio system in Hollywood and the artistic superiority of theatre over film that are more reflective of viewpoints held in the past than in contemporary society. Selling out and losing your integrity in return for financial stability are universal themes as is the need for every person to take personal responsibility for the decisions they make in their lives as well as for their moral failings. Clifford Odets uses the play as another soapbox for his leftist leaning ideological condemnation of merchants and those who seek to make a profit, but he also condemns the general public for consuming the crap produced by popular culture. That having been said, I do recommend you go out to see The Billboard Players' production of The Big Knife. The price is right and you will get a relaxing afternoon or evening of high-quality community theater. The staff is very friendly and all refreshments, served before the show and during intermission, cost only $1.00 (advance warning - for some reason they serve only decaf coffee, not that you'll need it to stay awake). After you see The Big Knife, you will leave the theatre committed to becoming a better person.