Chicago Theater Review: THE BIG KNIFE (Raven Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 21, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Clifford Odets is justly famed for his agit-prop Depression-era New York-based protest plays (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy), but The Big Knife, written a decade later, is more personal than polemical. If only to suit the California context of this 150-minute, rarely produced play, Odets reveals a comparatively mellowed-out writer. His bitter experiences as a Hollywood scribe deliver a Tinsel Town tragedy that, compared to the epic issues of his earlier works, feels more TMZ than Euripides. But, no question, this kind of classic American potboiler is meat and potatoes for Raven Theatre artistic director Michael Menendian. He stirs the three-act pot and might have pulled off a boiler—if only he’d found the right lead to turn tragicomedy into something more substantial.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of THE BIG KNIFE at Raven in ChicagoCoated in postwar (but not “film noir”) disillusionment, all the usual L.A. suspects are here: Charlie Castle, the angst-ridden movie star who sold out so long ago he can’t remember (Jason Huysman); an unscrupulous studio head (Chuck Spencer); his willing flunky (Greg Caldwell); the loyal but upright hack-agent (Ron Quade); the morally uncompromised best friend (Ian Novak); the estranged but loyal wife (Liz Fletcher); a scandal-mongering gossip columnist (JoAnn Montemurro); the star’s all-suffering publicist (Mike Boone); an adulterous La La Land temptress dressed, of course, in red (Jen Short); and a dewy-eyed, wanna-be starlet who’s a lamb made for slaughter (Jennifer Dymit). (Somehow the drug dealer got left out…)

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of THE BIG KNIFE at Raven in ChicagoThere’s the usual talk of the purity of the stage versus the corruption of the “Industry” but, lacking any evidence of the idealism from which matinee idol Charlie Castle has declined, it’s hard to care about his self-defeating mid-life crisis and career crackup. Drinking too much and sleeping too little, Charlie has just signed away his soul with a 14-year contract (script approval, promotion guarantees) that most celluloid stars would kill for. But, urged on by his loyal but tested wife Marian (period-perfect Liz Fletcher) he wants out of the dream factory and craves better scripts too. It’s difficult to sympathize with Castle, who suffers from the proverbial contradiction: “The food here is terrible and the portions are so small.”

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of THE BIG KNIFE at Raven in ChicagoThere’s also a skeleton in Charlie’s closet that’s about to get reanimated: Though Charlie’s sad-sack publicist took the rap for a DUI that killed a kid, there’s more to the tale than meets the eye of the tabloids: Charlie’s studio is desperate to stop a scandal from succumbing to blackmail and actually hurting the box office gross.

More a problem for the production than the play, is that the tragic ending is never earned: Huysman gives the supposedly haunted and self-loathing Charlie entirely too much confidence and charm; he doesn’t seem to have a second self apart from what the camera captures, let alone a dark side. In the end, Charlie ultimately pleads for a rare pleasure in this talking town (or an Odets play)—absolute silence. But there’s only one way for true silence in Hollywood, and when Charlie commits this act (no spoilers here), it doesn’t carry the inevitability that true tragedy deserves. Raven Theatre’s production, with all of its plusses in design and acting, feels more like a story ripped from the headlines than the searing tragedy which Odets is known for; what we get is scandal, what we crave is heartbreak.

photos by Dean La Prairie

The Big Knife
Raven Theatre Company in Chicago
scheduled to end on November 11, 2012
for tickets call 773-338-2177 or visit http://www.raventheatre,com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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