Eugene Weekly : Theater : 2.15.07

Stick A Knife In This Play
Overheated Odets at the UO

In the University Theatre Second Season production of The Big Knife, Clifford Odets’ scathing insider indictment of the post-WWII Hollywood studio system, stardom often comes at a high price. Exposing the dark underside of studios, which owned their stars and treated them as commodities, the play is a cautionary tale, warning would-be stars to be careful what they wish for: Fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Dixie Evans (Charlotte Gallagher) recoils from Charlie Castle (Mike Hoag). Photo courtesy UO Theatre Dept.

In a sordid milieu of gossip columnists, powerful men in expensive suits, flattery and deceit, where Tinsel Town stars are blackmailed into studio servitude and their wives take pills to run a little faster and pills to put them to sleep, Mike Hoag plays Charles Castle, an A-list actor and idealist whose values have long been brushed aside for his career. Castle’s drinking, carousing and self-destructive behavior have estranged him from his wife and young son. When his studio contract comes up for renewal, his wife Marion (Brittany Bilyeu) begs him, for the sake of their marriage, not to sign. However, studio boss Marcus Hoff (Martin Fogarty) is prepared to play hardball. He has knowledge of a damaging and scandalous secret about the star.

Considered one of Odets’ minor works, The Big Knife is overwritten, overwrought and overflowing with hard-boiled film noir style dialogue reflective of the biases of the era toward African Americans (the hired help is referred to as “the Negroes”) and women (“I’m like a girl in a summertime canoe — I can’t say no”). Because Odets’ script has a forced, artificial quality, none of the dialogue sounds entirely natural; this play may not have been the best choice for student actors.

Mike Hoag’s performance as the beleaguered star is mediocre. Throughout his performance of the admittedly verbose script, Hoag seems to be reciting text rather than acting. He does well in the scenes where he’s being witty or flip, yet in the climactic ending, his performance fails to capture our sympathy. To be fair, even seasoned actors would have difficulty with this play.

Odets’ stilted dialogue also seemed to be a stumbling block for Jason Sample-March in his portrayal of Charlie’s friend Hank Teagle and for Charlotte Gallagher, who plays the ditzy starlet Dixie Evans. Their focus on getting lines out diminishes their ability to effectively convey the personalities of their characters. Standout performances included Brittany Bilyeu, terrific as Charlie’s distraught wife Marion. Although petite, Bilyeu is a compelling force on stage. Likewise, John Faciane turns out a fine performance as Charlie’s old-fashioned southern agent Nat Danziger, and Kevin Coubal is aptly cast as the boss’ manipulative and smarmy studio henchmen Smiley Cox; Martin Fogarty is suitably intimidating as studio boss Marcus Hoff and Megan Joy is a delight as spicy temptress Connie Bliss.

Although the play itself is flawed, the production has some things going for it. The costumes are fabulous. From Marion’s stylish ’50s-era frocks to gossip columnist Patty Benedict’s working girl faux leopard stole, they enhance the authenticity of the production. The set, too, is inspired. Modern and functional, the tasteful décor, complete with staircase, a wet bar and a lovely screen that filters through soft light, aptly captures the lavish Hollywood lifestyle of its tormented inhabitants.

The Big Knife continues at the Arena Theatre Feb. 15-17. For tickets, call 346-4363. $4-$6.