by Samuel L. Leiter
Seeing the Peccadillo Theater Company’s production of Clifford Odets’s rarely revived 1938 dramedy Rocket to the Moon, directed by Dan Wackerman, makes one wonder why it hasn’t been produced more often. Not that this respectable revival is without its serious drawbacks; still, it’s good enough to demonstrate the play’s continued stage-worthiness. Even lesser Odets is better than many of the new plays that fill local stages season in and season out. And even the word “lesser” may be inappropriate for those who believe this to be Odets’s overlooked masterpiece.
Originally produced by the Group Theatre in that fabled company’s troubled later days, Rocket to the Moon takes place during a steaming New York summer in the office of a forty-year-old dentist, Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg, who hasn’t seen forty since 1997). Business is slow and the phone isn’t exactly jumping off the hook. Ben’s scolding wife of ten years, Belle (Marilyn Matarrese), who lost their only child at birth three years earlier, opposes his accepting the offer of her wealthy, theatrically flamboyant father, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary), who thinks Ben should move to a fancier address where he can become a high-paid specialist. The too-cautious Belle is for holding Ben back, but her father, to whom she will not speak, urges Ben to take risks, to “Take a rocket to the moon. Explode!” or even have an affair, if he’s ever going to be liberated and grow.
Ben finds the charms of his desperately lonely, naïve, self-dramatizing, love-starved, and inefficient nineteen-year-old dental assistant, Cleo Singer (Katie McClellan), irresistible. This sets up a triangle: husband, wife, and lover. But another triangle materializes when Ben must compete for Cleo’s affections with the grandiose aspirations of his Mephistophelian father-in-law, a rivalry complicated by the desires of smooth operator Willy Wax (Lou Liberatore, ineffective), a dance director. Until she gets wise to him, Cleo, who has artistic aspirations, thinks Willy can help her become a dancer. Although Ben’s the one Cleo really loves, he is, to Cleo’s chagrin, unable to leave his wife. As the summer nears its end, Cleo, having grown up quickly, and seeing nothing for her in Ben or Mr. Prince, departs to find what she’s really looking for, “a whole full world, with all the trimmings!” Meanwhile the dejected Ben tries to convince himself that his life is just “beginning.”
The play’s life springs from its often pungent dialogue and the vivid characters who work at or pass through Ben Stark’s spacious office, including a philosophical foot doctor named Frenchy (Michael Keyloun) and another dentist named Phil Cooper (Larry Bull), a loser so strapped by Depression-era economics he must sell his blood to pay for the space he rents from Ben. Apart from such incidents, Odets largely abandons his preoccupation with politically conscious themes for psychological ones, with characters expounding on the pain and power of love (and marriage), and on the need for psychic freedom. Unfortunately, the play is more static than outwardly dramatic, as exemplified by Ben’s inability to leave his wife, a dilemma that leaves the character struggling to express himself during the play’s famously problematic ending.
Ned Eisenberg as Dr. Stark, despite being too old, is generally acceptable as a man whose essential ambivalence places him in an affair he’s emotionally unequipped to handle. In what should be the play’s most interesting role, Jonathan Hadary carries off Mr. Prince’s ostentation with aplomb, but he lacks the required sexual charisma, a factor made even more apparent by the foolish-looking rabbinical beard he chooses to sport.
I have no idea of what it is that Ben, Mr. Prince, and Willy see in Cleo; perhaps it can be traced to the “municipal champagne” everyone drinks from the office water cooler; it’s certainly not apparent in Katie McLellan’s screechy performance. Then, again, this may also be a flaw in the way she’s written. Marilyn Matarrese provides the most convincing and sympathetic performance as the neglected wife; she’s totally true to the period in manner and tone, and the play blossoms mainly when Belle fights with Ben to preserve their marriage. Her performance, in fact, only serves to make Ben’s behavior toward her less sympathetic than Odets intended.
Careful attention to period detail in Harry Feiner’s office setting (which he also lit), sound designer David Thomas’s jazzy between-scenes music, and Amy C. Bradshaw’s late thirties’ costumes underline Rocket to the Moon’s significance as a time capsule. Women wear gloves, girdles, and outerwear despite the heat, and are criticized for going stockingless; gas costs twenty cents a gallon; a dentist makes sixty dollars a week (still enough to afford a summer bungalow at the beach); a dental assistant gets sixteen dollars; a pint of blood will earn you thirty bucks; and the “Japs” are in the news.
This rocket may not get you to the moon, but it’s got enough fuel to give you a pretty good ride for the two and a half hours of its duration.
Rocket to the Moon
Theatre at St. Clements
423 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through March 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).