Helmer Daniel Fish turns “Rocket to the Moon,” Clifford Odets’ rarely produced play of failed dreams and romance, into an intriguing existential exercise. But a compelling set design, an ambiance evoking Edward Hopper and a marvelous perf from a veteran actor aren’t enough to oil the creaks of this dated and belabored script.
The 1938 play and new production struggle between worlds of naturalism and expressionism, never finding a comfortable place in either. Despite literary aspirations (Shakespearean references are abundant in case we miss the intent), Odets’ play is essentially a depressing male menopausal melodrama dragged out well past its modest interest at more than 2½ hours. Even the playwright’s usually skilled efforts at placing human struggles in a larger political and social world produce awkwardness here. (Arthur Miller a decade later would show how to master this mix of styles and themes.)
But the Long Wharf aud at least has a bracing design to consider. Andrew Lieberman’s literal box of a set depicting a waiting room creates a sense of eavesdropping on this claustrophobic, cubicled life at a time when air conditioning was not commonplace and tensions were likely to rise along with the temperature. The detailed office set also ever-so-slowly revolves, giving aud a change of perspective as we see the story unspool. Jane Cox’s expert lighting meets the mobile challenge.
But it won’t take the audience long to start forecasting the outcome of the interactions among the play’s caged characters. A 40-year-old milquetoast dentist, Ben Stark (David Chandler), who’s looking to move his practice to an uptown address, is dissuaded by his formidable wife, Belle (Christina Kirk). She doesn’t want to take the chance, preferring to settle for the safe and known. She especially doesn’t want the move to be financed by her estranged father (David Margulies), a wealthy businessman whom she blames for her late mother’s unhappy life.
The arrival of young, pretty and spirited assistant Cleo (Louisa Krause) stirs in Stark a passion and purpose he thought he had long abandoned.
Also on hand are the two doctors with whom he shares a suite of offices: a wise-guy podiatrist nicknamed Frenchy (Henry Stram) and a fellow dentist, Phil Cooper (Andrew Weems), down on his luck.
Chandler plays Stark with the gentle ache of a once proud, now deflated man who suddenly sees his last chance at true happiness but is conflicted by loyalty to his wife and their shared pain.
Kirk provides as much sympathy as she can to Belle, but she can hold back the harshly written role as marital nag for just so long.
Krause as the resilient Cleo does well balancing between the character’s ambition and idealism. But as Odets’ ultimate escape artist in this anteroom of hell, her character is often as inconsistent as her inventions about her identity.
Stram manages to impress as the office clown and commentator despite some of Odets’ most slangy and arch lines. (“I know the difference between love and pound cake.”) Weems is touching as the alcoholic dentist reduced to selling his own blood to make the rent. Danny Mastrogiorgio plays a dubious character who tempts Cleo, but his role and purpose are ill defined.
As the rogue father with the clearest eye on the proceedings, Margulies shines in a wonderfully measured and assured perf. When he’s onstage, the play seems to divert from its endlessly circular track.