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Theater : A Love Story Gone Sour : * Those involved with Clifford Odets' 'The Big Knife' see a play more about personal struggle than Hollywood.

September 24, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

BURBANK — Hollywood has habitually tried to seduce the best writers. Among those who succumbed, the creme recoiled at their naivete in giving in. Their talent has been abused, often even molested, and they have to strike back.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in a novel and in short stories. David Mamet did it in "Speed the Plow."

The golden boy of the 1930s Group Theatre, Clifford Odets, did it in "The Big Knife."

Dreamers who bow low to Mecca-on-the-Fault should be reminded of the danger. That's one good reason for reviving Odets' drama about a superstar about to get the big knife between his shoulder blades.

But wait. This is a production at Burbank's Alliance Repertory Company. They're the up-to-date folks who brought you Dave Higgins' macabre "Iron City." Last year, they had a long-running hit with the outrageous world premiere of "Rage! . . . Or I'll Be Home for Christmas." They're doing a revival? Of a 45-year-old melodrama?

Maybe it isn't as odd as it sounds. Suzan Fellman, who brought "Rage" to the Alliance, also suggested "The Big Knife." She acted in "Rage" and will be seen in Odets' play. She fell in love with the piece when her acting coach, the late Peggy Feury, introduced her to it. Fellman, who refers to herself as an in-your-face, rock 'n' roll theater person, felt that there was something beyond the proscenium form of the play, beyond its melodrama.

Fellman says: "Its richness resonates in my mind to this day. I always thought this is what stage should be. As a theater company, we can be well-rounded enough to illuminate these things on stage. They can be presented in a style that has a gut to it. A lot of people have forgotten that with classics like this. They do it the soap opera way that it's been done since 1949. It doesn't have to be done that way today."

The possibilities for strong production values are what excited Fellman. And rereading the play made her re-examine herself as an actor in Hollywood. "Things haven't changed," she says. "I look at 'The Big Knife' as not so much about a stinky Hollywood, but as a love story gone sour. Just as my love for Hollywood has a tendency on occasion to go sour. You forget what's driving you--is it the love, or does it turn out to be the greed? That fine line happens so quickly. You turn around and say, 'My God, where did I get off the track?' "

Scott Campbell, Alliance board chairman, is remembered for his performance in last year's Pacific Theatre Ensemble production of Gorky's "The Barbarians" and the Alliance's "Iron City" and "Modigliani." He will be seen in the upcoming movie "Gettysburg." Director of "The Big Knife," he says that at the beginning, the play was not the first choice of the company, even though most actors like to chew on some of its scenes in acting class.

"What won us over," Campbell says, "as much as it is a diatribe against Hollywood, is that it's about a person, not a town." That person is the play's central figure, movie idol Charlie Castle, whose dream is about to burst.

"We're all subject to the same thing Charlie is," Campbell adds. "Not to the magnitude he is, but we're all subject to the same thing whether we're in Hollywood or not. Where in America do we draw the line between following your heart, following your bliss, the artistic side of you, and where you turn that into some kind of commercial enterprise? If we look at it as someone's personal struggle, to decide between success and the American Dream, and fulfillment inside, then the play takes on a much more profound meaning for today.

Sherman Howard, a veteran of regional theater, New York productions of "The Foreigner" and "I'm Not Rappaport," and television episodics, plays Charlie Castle. Like his director, Howard feels that in this play Odets is dealing with larger issues than the evils of moviedom.

"On the most personal level," Howard says, "in terms of Charlie Castle's struggle, the question would be how much of yourself can you afford to cash in before you start lopping off pieces of your soul? In a broader sense, Odets is asking that question of America. The direction he perceived America going in, politically and culturally, was anathema to him. In a sense, Charlie represents America."

In taking the play out of the proscenium, the group is redesigning its theater. Audience members will sit beside Charlie as he mixes a drink. They will be in the action.

WHERE AND WHEN What: "The Big Knife." Location: Alliance Repertory Theatre, 3204 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends Oct. 24. Price: $15. Call: (213) 660-8587.

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