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Learning Old Hollywood for Today's Broadway How history changed the current revival of "The Big Knife"

By MARK PEIKERT

Period plays and their dated references can be daunting not just for audiences, but for the actors. That's where the director and the director's assistant come in.

Alexander Greenfield has assisted director Doug Hughes on a number of plays that were written as contemporary pieces at the time, but have been revived on a Broadway far removed from their original period. Among them is the first-ever revival of Clifford Odets' 1949 The Big Knife, a warts-and-all look at the film industry that came along a year before the film Sunset Boulevard.

The Big Knife focuses on movie star Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), whose contract with his studio is up and who's being pressured by means both subtle and blunt to sign a new, 14-year deal.

As Greenfield points out, that particular plot point couldn't take place now that the once-powerful studio system no longer exists, but Castle's dilemma between making millions of dollars churning out mediocre films and returning to the artistic fulfillment of the theatre still rings true. "There are some unique experiences and details about the Hollywood system in the 1940s that couldn't take place now," Greenfield adds. "But there is a struggle for integrity and art that still exists. For folks who have done Broadway and film and TV work, they're not issues far removed from home."

Still, he points out that when The Big Knife was first produced, Odets, director Lee Strasberg, and the cast were all on the same historical page. "It's one thing to work on a contemporary play that's been written to take place in the late '40s," Greenfield says, "but it's another thing when that play was written to be current and fresh and relevant [all those years ago]. So you steep yourself in enough of it so that you can feel truthful and feel informed."

When immersing themselves in any specific time in history,  Hughes and Greenfield go to great lengths to become, as Greenfield puts it, "experts on whatever topic or period a play takes place in." The two read books together and discuss them over a drink or coffee, for instance, rather than Greenfield doing the legwork by himself and distilling what he's learned.

"The expectations are that the actors are not going to be reading those same books, so we can strategically, in the moment, figure out if there's something of use there," Greenfield says, adding that because actors come to a play with different methodologies and approaches, there's never any sense of assigning homework. During rehearsals, however, a basket of materials was always available for the actors to peruse if they wished. Options included Odets' published journals from the era and classic film noirs such as Double Indemnity and In a Lonely Place.

In fact, noir film became unexpectedly valuable to this revival. Because The Big Knife was written at a time when two intermissions was de rigueur, Hughes and the cast found a way to keep the play moving during a required pause between the original first and second acts. Now, we see a noir film starring Charlie Castle. Greenfield describes the result as something that "both gets us through the transition and is an homage to all that research."

That solid base of knowledge also helped create the tone of the rehearsal room. "In terms of creating leadership and trust in the room, those actors know that we know what we're talking about," Greenfield says. "And there's nothing more poisonous than a rehearsal room where actors doubt the leadership of the director."

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Mark Peikert is N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage Magazine
Photo by Joan Marcus