A fervid indictment of Hollywood, Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" was written in an agony of disgust after Odets' tenure as a movie studio screenwriter. First produced in 1949, the play was deemed overwrought by critics of the day, but time has proved it durably resonant, despite and because of its melodramatic effusions.
Director Tonyo Melendez and an inspired cast blow the lid off Odets' rattling potboiler in a superlative staging at the Lillian Theatre. Robert Beltran, perhaps best known for his work on "Star Trek: Voyager," stars as Charlie Castle, a much-adored movie star who has sold his soul, metaphorically speaking, to satanic, all-powerful studio head Marcus Hoff (chilling Miguel Sandoval). When Charlie killed a child in a hit-and-run accident some months back, Hoff covered up the incident. Now, Hoff is pressuring Charlie to renew his 14-year contract -- a Faustian bargain Charlie's wife, Marion (effective Rita Rehn), will not tolerate.
Ever mindful of the period, beautifully evoked by Scott Siedman's tacky-lush set, Melendez calibrates the distance between emotional truth and histrionics, seldom tumbling into the gap between. Reminiscent of John Garfield in his prime, Beltran is righteously passionate as a conscientious artist forced into an unholy compromise -- Odets' prescient nod to escalating McCarthyism.
As Charlie's agent, John Apicella progresses from the servile to the surprisingly noble, Locky Lambert smolders as an amoral temptress, and Josie Gundy is perky and pitiable as a boozy starlet with a fatal ax to grind. Lethally smarmy, John Berczeller almost runs away with the show as a yes man who glad-hands with an unsheathed stiletto.
'The Big Knife'
Where: Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood
When: Wednesdays- Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. No show today or Friday.
Ends: Dec. 14
Contact: (323) 655-8587
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes