Set against the late Depression-era scramble for survival, Clifford Odets’s Rocket to the Moon is a story of middle-aged torpor and various delusions of love. In The Peccadillo Theater Company’s revival the acting carries this oddly structured play that, though abundant with beautiful language, lacks high enough stakes to give it much punch.
The action takes place in Dr. Ben Stark’s (Ned Eisenberg) dental office. Dr. Stark’s wife, Belle (Marilyn Matarrese) is concerned about her husband’s plan to move to a better office, especially in the summer when business is slow. Her concerns also include his problematic office mate, Dr. Phil Cooper (Larry Bull) who is late with rent, his relationship with her father, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary) who is putting up the money for the new office, and his new assistant, Cleo (Katie McClellan) who is too unprofessional. Later Mr. Prince makes a big pitch to his son-in-law to take advantage of having a young, available woman, Cleo, in his midst and practically talks Stark into having an affair. As the summer sizzles, Dr. Stark and Cleo become closer and eventually have their affair, 1930s style. In fact, in this strange tale, the elderly Mr. Prince and one of Stark’s middle aged patients, Willy Wax, also become head-over-heels infatuated with Cleo. Cleo is desperate to ameliorate her miserable living conditions and encourages each of these improbable suitors until she finds out one by one that none of them suit. In a center stage exit speech, Cleo tells the aging trio of smitten males that she is looking for love, that her man must be able to help her become a woman and give her, “A whole full world with all the trimmings.” These guys obviously can’t deliver such a multi-layered tall order. Dr. Stark will never leave his wife, Mr. Prince is too old and Mr. Wax wants all the benefits of marriage without the commitment. Off she goes to find true love and the boys are left to sort themselves out with Dr. Stark reflecting on his shining moment with Cleo as the beginning of a new life. It sounds like a great set up for romantic comedy but Odets weighs the play down with language accompanied by a good portion of Depression blues. In the end, the play is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to cause much of a stir. There are large open windows in Harry Feiner’s beautifully designed and lit set. I couldn’t help but think one of these sort-of-but-not-very troubled characters might take a Depression like jump out one of them. Alas, a small tussle between two of the men, not amounting to much, is the best effort at any heightened action.
Eisenberg is an endearing Dr. Stark who comes across more resigned to the character’s hum-drummery than hen pecked by his wife. The wife takes a beating in the text but Matarrese’s Bella is one of the better performances and is more than sufficiently likable. Jonathan Hadary’s Mr. Prince is the real showman in the group – a bon vivant with a glib tongue that often makes no sense. He is the only one of the men who seems to really appreciate Cleo for something she may or may not be and Hadary’s easy smile and twinkling wit animate his scenes. Michael Keyloun as the cynical podiatrist down the hall offers a welcome bit of conflict as one man who is not such a fan of Cleo. Bull’s Dr. Cooper carries the weight of the Depression on his shoulders with much needed humor. As Cleo, McClellan has the most difficult role because Cleo is adored by so many and though Odets has written Cleo to be almost too clever and poetic for her poor working class background there should be an extra spark besides great speeches that ignites each of these men to instantly desire her. Partially due to Odets’s inconsistencies with the character and partially due to performance, there is an open space where that missing spark should be. The space is filled with the likability of Matarrese’s Bella who makes it more plausible to cheer for the much maligned doctor’s wife than to root for a future Mrs. Cleo Stark.
The play is choppy with too many important plot points happening off stage. The relationship between Stark and Cleo makes leaps without the script filling in the gap of how it all actually happened. The growth in Cleo from a scatterbrained girl to a woman is difficult to piece together. Her hard-times desperation throughout the first act, that appears to be motivation for taking up with the doctor, is replaced in the second act with her taking up with everyone who crosses her path while claiming it’s all for love. It is fortunate the actors manage to make some sense of the play’s fragmented structure and middle of the road impact, but with a title like Rocket to the Moon the play could’ve used more fireworks.
Rocket to the Moon – Written by Clifford Odets. Directed by Dan Wackerman.
WITH: Ned Eisenberg (Ben Stark), Marilyn Matarrese (Belle Stark), Larry Bull (Phil Cooper), Katie McClellan (Cleo Singer), Jonathan Hadary (Mr. Prince), Michael Keyloun (Walter “Frenchy” Jensen), Lou Liberatore (Willy Wax)
Scenic and Lighting Design by Harry Feiner, Costume Design by Amy C. Bradshaw, Sound Design by David Thomas, Properties Design by Nelly Reyes, Wig Design: Paul Huntley, Fight Director: Ron Piretti, Production Stage Manager: Randy Lawson, Assistant Director: Mary K. Ryan, Press Representative: Keith Sherman & Associates. Presented by Peccadillo Theatre Company, www.thepecadillo.com, at Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street, New York, NY. From February 10th – March 28th, 2015 Running time 2.5 hours. One intermission.