Stubborn Kinds of Fellows: The Big Knife Has Been Dulled by Time, The Nance Isn’t Funny Enough and Matilda Is Good Not Great, but Those Motown Tunes — Mercy, Mercy Me!

Bobby Cannavale and Ana Reeder in The Big Knife.

Bobby Cannavale and Ana Reeder in The Big Knife.

There was once a time—and 1949, when Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife premiered on Broadway, seems to have been that time—when an angry and politically inclined writer could meaningfully point out that Hollywood is both corrupt and corrupting, that movie stars make entertainment and not art, and that studio bosses are craven businessmen. In 2013, however, these notions are truisms, and that six-decade disconnect leaves Mr. Odets’s noir-tinged moralistic melodrama, which opened last night in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre, as empty as the once-idealistic matinee idol at its center.

Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), né Charlie Cass, is the biggest male star at Hoff-Federated Studios, and he’s on the brink of signing a new contract with the studio. His adored wife, Marion (Marin Ireland), doesn’t want him to sign; she doesn’t like what Hollywood has done to him, how he’s so much less noble than he was when he was a theater actor back in New York. They’re separated—she may not like Hollywood, but she likes the Malibu beach house to which she has taken their son—and if Charlie re-ups, she’ll leave him for Hank Teagle (C.J. Wilson), a writer returning to New York, locus of all things lofty and non-Angeleno, where he’ll write, if not the Great American Novel, then at least an important one. Complicating matters is the fact that the studio helped Castle cover up a little hit-and-run messiness, and mogul Marcus Hoff (Richard Kind) isn’t about to write off the investment he has made in his star. Ultimately, Charlie, trapped, does the only thing he can to preserve his integrity.

This revival of The Big Knife, directed by Doug Hughes in its first outing on Broadway since Lee Strasberg mounted its debut, is lovingly, gorgeously staged. If Mr. Cannavale seems competent but a bit lost in his role, Ms. Ireland is typically excellent and Mr. Kind breaks from his usual schlemiel shtick to deliver a ferocious performance as a domineering master manipulator. John Lee Beatty’s set is a stone-and-glass vision of California mid-century modern design, and Catherine Zuber’s luxe costumes are worthy of Golden Age Hollywood.

But the play itself is another story. Mr. Odets is a master political dramatist, but this does not rank with his better work. It’s not only obvious but also ham-handed, and the play, obsessed with and surprised by Hollywood’s inherent amorality, today reads as naive. With a businessmen-are-bad message, you can see why Roundabout might consider The Big Knife for this still-recovering economic era. But it’s so dated, and so obviously and laboriously message-laden—Hoff’s smarmy studio henchman is named not just Smiley or Coy but, semaphorically, Smiley Coy—no development exec should have given this revival a green light.

The playwright Douglas Carter Beane is one of the funniest men on Broadway. So is Nathan Lane, maybe the only great musical comedy star working today. But while they have each put on some memorable shows—Mr. Beane’s Little Dog Laughed, Mr. Lane in any number of great musicals—they’ve also both mounted some stinkers. The Nance, a new play by Mr. Beane starring Mr. Lane, about homophobia and 1930s burlesque, lands a lot closer to stinkerdom than hit territory.

Mr. Lane plays Chauncey Miles, a burlesque performer who specializes in comedic, double-entendre-filled roles as an effeminate gay man, what was called a “nance.” This was a common burlesque shtick, but what makes Chauncey unusual is that he is also gay in real life, a longtime tomcat falling into a stable relationship with the hunky young Ned (Jonny Orsini). LaGuardia’s late 1930s clampdown on burlesque arrives, and Chauncey’s life is thrown into turmoil. Long a happily (if ineffectively) closeted bourgeois Republican, he has his I-am-what-I-am moment, decides he can’t tolerate domesticity and, worst of all, sees his burlesque crew uprooted to New Jersey.

The Nance, which opened Monday night at the Lyceum Theatre, is a Lincoln Center Theater production, and Jack O’Brien directs a typically LCT-lush production, with a hulking John Lee Beatty set that rotates from Chauncey’s apartment to the Irving Place Theatre to a cruisy automat and elsewhere. The supporting cast is game and amusing, especially Cady Huffman as a stripper with a heart of gold and Lewis J. Stadlen as an avuncular clownish comic.

Still, there are several insurmountable problems here, most importantly the fact that this is, alas, Serious Stuff. Mr. Beane and Mr. Lane are both gay men, and they seem determined to teach us an important lesson about gay history. Mr. Lane is funny, sure, and Mr. Beane offers some jokes, but neither reaches (because neither seems to want to reach) the hilarity he’s capable of. Also challenging is that Chauncey, proud but self-hating, lonely but alienating, is so hard to feel sympathy for, even when he’s being beat up by cops for not hiding his sexual orientation. It’s a message play, but its message is insufficiently out and proud.

Standing outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, waiting to get into the new musical Motown, I couldn’t help bopping my head and tapping my feet—they were piping in the Temptations hit “Get Ready,” and it’s as infectious today as it must have been in 1966. It’s usually a dull moment—standing in the cold, looking for your date, fighting through a crowd—but this soundtrack enlivens it. And that’s how you’ll feel once you make it to your seat, too: Motown, which opened Sunday night, isn’t much of a play, but the soundtrack makes it a blockbuster musical.

How could it not? The Motown catalog comprises some of the great music of the 20th century, and Motown includes nearly 60 classic songs—whatever your favorite Motown number, it’s there (unless, oddly, your favorite is “Tracks of My Tears”). There are a slew of eye-catching performances that may not quite count as acting but are virtuoso feats of impersonation. Valisia LaKae is a sublime Diana Ross, capturing the diva’s mannerisms, smile, stage presence and offstage hauteur. Charl Brown is the spitting image of Smokey Robinson. Raymond Luke Jr., who I saw play young Stevie Wonder and young Michael Jackson, is, like those two, a pint-sized dynamo. (He alternates performances with Jibreel Mawry.) The 18-piece orchestra sounds great. And the choreography, by Patrica Wilcox and Warren Adams, delightfully replicates signature Motown moves.

Where Motown fails is in its attempt to be more than a tribute concert.

Berry Gordy, the visionary impresario who founded Motown, is the book writer for Motown and one of its producers as well. He’s a multitalented man, but neither dramaturgy nor warts-and-all honesty is among his gifts. In its book scenes, Motown reads mostly as anodyne corporate biography, with founder and CEO as hero. Gordy worked hard, looked out for his people, and took gambles to make lasting art. If he had a fault, as the sycophant says to the job interviewer, it was only that he cared too much. The narrative is self-serving, mawkish, and sometimes, as in a tacky dig about Marvin Gaye’s father, ugly.

But the narrative is not what anyone’s here for, and if a good script could have elevated this to good play, a bad one doesn’t stop it from being a fun evening of great music. An hour or so into the show, as Gordy and Ross are falling love to the duet “You’re All I Need to Get By,” you suddenly realize that the entire audience is singing along with the lovers. It’s like a sound effect, almost—a low murmur of backup voices. And with that kind of happy devotion from theatergoers, there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep Motown from being a hit.

Nor can I imagine any ignoramus parent, or any evil headmistress, able to stand athwart the juggernaut that is Matilda. Based on the Roald Dahl children’s book, with music and lyrics by the Australian dirty-comic-cabaret star Tim Minchin, and starring a rotating cast of four little girls, Matilda triumphed in London last season, where it won more Olivier Awards than any show ever, and arrived last week at the Shubert Theatre as the most anticipated musical of the season. It’s living up to its hype.

Little Matilda (Bailey Ryon at the performance I saw, replaced after an injury near the end by Milly Shapiro) is a genius, reading classic literature before she’s even started school and spinning detailed stories that wow the local librarian. But with overbearing, inattentive, aggressively stupid parents—mom is a competitive ballroom dancer; dad is a hustler passing off used cars as new in an ill-advised deal with a Russian mobster—she gets no support at home. Worse, when she finally starts school, the evil, scheming headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, in drag and deliciously evil) a former Olympic hammer-thrower who believes all kids are maggots, is determined to crush her. The only one who believes in her is her mousy teacher, Miss Honey (Lauren Ward), who is as terrorized by Trunchbull as are the students. But with Honey’s help, and a useful bit of telekinesis, Matilda and the rest of the kids triumph over the malign grown-ups who stand in their way.

Matthew Warchus’s direction is spectacular, a fast-paced, antic dreamscape full of detailed little bits of movement and reaction. The moody sets and garishly loud costumes by Rob Howell are fantastic, and Peter Darling’s choreography, especially for Matilda’s schoolmates, is clever and sublime. Dennis Kelly’s book deftly captures Mr. Dahl’s subversive wordplay. The grown-ups are very funny performers, especially the scene-stealing, child-hating Mr. Carvel and the elastic Gabriel Ebert as Matilda’s dad, a high-stepping, quick-talking collection of elbows and knees. The kids—all of them—are sweet and expertly comic. Ms. Ryon, my first Matilda, was wonderful, with a grown-up gravitas peeking through her innocence that well served her character’s complicated persona. (Ms. Shapiro, who seemed only childlike, impressed me less, but it’s also unfair to harshly judge a pre-tween forced to step in for another actor in a show’s final minutes.)

And, still, as much I found Matilda to be good, even really good, I never quite thought it was great. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away by it—despite so many excellent elements. And ultimately that’s because of Mr. Michin’s music, which is appropriately atmospheric but only once or twice coalesces into a specific, memorable song. It’s a lovely score, but it frequently serves more as underscoring than as a collection of numbers. And without great numbers, Matilda never quite gave me the emotional exhilaration I was hoping for.

Or maybe I should just take up hammer-throwing.

The Big Knife

Starring Bobby Cannavale, Marin Ireland and Richard Kind

Directed by Doug Hughes

Written by Clifford Odets

Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street


The Nance

Starring Cady Huffman, Nathan Lane and Jonny Orsini

Directed by Jack O’Brien

Written by Douglas Carter Beane

Lincoln Center Theater at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street



Starring Charl Brown, Bryan Terrell Clark, Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae

Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright

Written by Berry Gordy

Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 West 46th Street



Starring Bertie Carvel, Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon and Milly Shapiro

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Written by Dennis Kelly

Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street


  Stubborn Kinds of Fellows: <i>The Big Knife</i> Has Been Dulled by Time, <i>The Nance</i> Isn’t Funny Enough and <i>Matilda</i> Is Good Not Great, but Those <i>Motown</i> Tunes — Mercy, Mercy Me!