Raven Theatre’s ‘The Big Knife’ cuts keep into the dark dealings of 1950s Hollywood

Greg Caldwell, Jason Huysman and Chuck Spencer in Raven Theatre’s “The Big Knife.” Photo credit: Dean LaPrairie

Billy Wilder took perhaps the first high-profile stab at the dark side of Hollywood’s star system with the classic film, “Sunset Boulevard.” In it, former silent film star Norma Desmond, who was unceremoniously dumped by Paramount Studios when talkies came into the picture, attempts to claw her way back to the top by ensnaring handsome screenwriter Joe Gillis as her reluctant ballast. Through a mix of high delusion and misinformation (they only wanted your car!), Norma — and Joe, for that matter — learn the hard way that when the the studio door shuts behind you, it’s swift and final. There’s no return, or comeback, or whatever you choose to call it.

In Clifford Odet’s caustic three-act play The Big Knife, which is receiving an efficient and, at times, intense production at Raven Theatre under Michael Menendian’s well-paced direction, we meet Charlie Castle (the impishly handsome Jason Huysman), who desperately wants out of the studio system like his life depended on it. Having worked like a dog with little in return aside from the requisite pool and mansion, his contract is up for renewal. The dollars are tempting, but the commitment — 14 years! — is overwhelming. But how can he turn his back to the studio, particularly head honcho Marcus Hoff (the chillingly driven Chuck Spencer) who shaped him into the A-lister he is today? And then there’s the blackmail…

Without giving too much away, Charlie’s decision sets his life into a downward spiral of coverups, apologies and pleading desperation. Meanwhile, Charlie’s on again/off again wife (Liz Fletcher, offering a polished if somewhat stiff performance) watches from the sidelines as her golden boy husband grows tarnished by the fame game. A cautionary tale of selling your soul to the man, as it were.

But don’t tell that tale to Ms. Desmond — she’d eagerly sign on the dotted line. She’d also covet JoAnn Montemurro’s fabulous gowns while I think of ways to sneak into Raven’s space after-hours to pilfer the delightfully retro furniture arranged in Ray Toler’s deliciously period-specific set design.

“The Big Knife” plays through November 11 at Raven Theatre. More info here >

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