Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets in Revival

L-R: Ned Eisenberg and Marilyn Matarrese in ROCKET TO THE MOON.
In 1938, in the wake of the Great Depression and with Nazism and Fascism on the rise, the world appeared to be on the brink of collapse.  In the same year, Clifford Odets’s personal life was also imploding: his wife had filed for divorce and the Group Theatre, the collective which already had produced five of his plays, seemed to be falling apart.  And it was then that Odets wrote Rocket to the Moon, which was staged that year by the Group Theater and opened to mixed reviews at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway.

Surely it is no coincidence that the play, also set in 1938 in New York City, relates the tale of Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), a struggling dentist whose own marriage and career are in similar distress.  Dental patients are difficult to come by when people must choose between dental treatment and putting food on the table to feed their families.  (Dental treatment will lose out every time.)  Phil Cooper (Larry Bull), another struggling dentist who sublets space from Stark is in similar dire straits.  He is an incipient alcoholic who hasn’t paid his rent for several months, which only serves to worsen Stark’s position.

Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary), Stark’s wealthy and idiosyncratic father-in-law has generously offered to fund Stark’s purchase of more modern dental equipment and a move uptown to posher quarters, an offer that Stark, who always had big dreams, is inclined to accept.  But Stark’s wife, Belle (Marilyn Matarresse), who is largely estranged from her own father, is more reluctant to accept the offer.  There is a deep bond of friendship and affection between her and her husband – they have been married for a decade and endured the loss of a child together – but their relationship lacks passion and she never shared her husband’s grand ambitions.

When Stark hires Cleo Singer (Katie McClellan), a vibrant girl half his age, to be his dental assistant, the emptiness of Stark’s life is brought into sharper focus.  His practice is failing and he is stuck in a loveless marriage.  Cleo claims to have fallen in love with him and he has fallen for her.  Should he leave his wife and take a “rocket to the moon” with Cleo?  Or is he just suffering from a temporary mid-life crisis that will fade with time?

The situation is confounded even further by Mr. Prince’s falling in love with Cleo himself and by her being lusted after as well by Willy Wax (Lou Liberatore), one of Stark’s smarmier patients.  Rounding out the cast is Walter “Frenchy” Jensen (Michael Keyloun), a podiatrist from down the hall whose role is more that of the cynical outsider who is eager to comment on the world’s foibles while reluctant to commit himself.

L-R: Jonathan Hadary and Katie McClellan in ROCKET TO THE MOON.
The basic theme of Rocket to the Moon is one of “settling.”  Belle is overt about it: she is prepared to settle because “half a loaf is better than none.”  Mr. Prince, despite his wealth, is resentful about the fact that, under pressure from his own deceased wife (Belle’s mother), he settled for a business career rather than pursuing his dream of acting – which goes a long way toward explaining his encouragement of Stark to follow his own dream no matter the cost and his estrangement from his own daughter.  Cleo refuses to settle for the reality of her own impoverished life and conjures up a world of lies and fantasy instead.  And it is Stark’s personal crisis – whether or not to settle for the life he has with Belle and a middling dental practice or to give it all up to take a risky shot at greater happiness with Cleo – that is at the core of the play.

Rocket to the Moon has not been revived nearly as often as some of Odets’s better-known works including Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing and Golden Boy, despite the fact that Odets’s son, Walt, came to see it as his father’s “magnum opus” and the playwright Arthur Miller considered it to be Odets’s best play.  Fortunately that oversight is now being corrected by a wonderful revival by The Peccadillo Theater Company at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street in midtown Manhattan.

In this production, Ned Eisenberg does a fine job in depicting Stark’s general ambivalence toward life, his weakness, submissiveness, and indecisiveness - but also his fundamental decency (he provides dental care for WPA workers at discount rates simply because they need it and most of his patients turn out to be family members in for free cleanings).  Katie McClellan plays her role with just the right mixture of youthful naivete and abandon while Jonathan Hadary is absolutely delightful as the quirky Mr. Prince.  But I thought that best of all was Marilyn Matarresse who managed to convey an extraordinary range of emotions – her resentment toward her father for his treatment of her mother, her ambivalent feelings toward her husband, her persistent despondency over the loss of her child, her rigidity, her stubbornness, and her underlying sense of insecurity.

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