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Rocket to the Moon

Clifford Odets' 1938 socially conscious drama about a troubled NYC dentist’s mid-life crisis is finely revived in this faithful, period piece production.

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Ned Eisenberg and Katie McClellan in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Ned Eisenberg and Katie McClellan in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“He’s as mixed up as The Twentieth Century,” observes the aged, wily, wheeler-dealer Mr. Prince, of his hapless son-in-law, dentist Ben Stark, in Clifford Odets’ 1938 play, Rocket to the Moon.

The Peccadillo Theater Company has finely and faithfully revived this rarely seen Odets play, the 6th of his plays to be produced in the late thirties. They are, “dedicated to the rediscovery of classic American theater, particularly those works which, despite their obvious literary and theatrical value, are not regularly revived.”

It is structured in the theatrical fashion of that era in three acts, and has the Chekhovian feel of being more concerned with depicting the characters rather than with a strong plot. It’s the sweltering months of June, July, and August, and set in Dr. Stark’s purposeful waiting room.  The effects of The Great Depression are in evidence, atmospherically and behaviorally.

Ben Stark is a disaffected forty-year-old dentist, with a middling Manhattan-based practice.  He has been married for 10 years to the shrewish Belle, who’s been emotionally troubled since the stillborn birth of their only child, a son, five years earlier, and her subsequent sterility. She has been estranged from her wealthy father for many years.

Sharing office space with Ben, and owing several months rent, is the cheery but down-on-his luck, fellow dentist, Phil Cooper.  Walter Jensen, of Swedish ancestry but nicknamed “Frenchy,” is a neighboring, cynical podiatrist who periodically pops up in Ben’s waiting room to kibbutz.  Another nearby office tenant is the vulgar, wise guy Broadway producer, Willy Wax.

Jonathan Hadary and Katie McClellan in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Jonathan Hadary and Katie McClellan in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Looming over all of these personal machinations is 19-year-old Cleo Singer, Ben’s alluring, and inept receptionist and assistant.  Radiant with youth, optimism and promise, she triggers all of the older character’s various feelings about themselves, inciting several to take complicated actions.

“I’m the American King Lear” is but one of the author’s piquant lines Jonathan Hadary delivers with relish as Mr. Prince.  Mr. Hadary is superb as this philosophical, earthy dandy.  He weaves in and out of the play, dispensing words of wisdom with gusto.  “Always address your elders with respect.  They could leave you a fortune.”  “Happy marriages are like The Dodo Bird.  Mostly extinct.”  The comedy of the character is combined with dramatic depth, as his feelings for the much younger Miss Singer grow more intense.  It is one of those vivid and memorable seemingly supporting performances that dominate an ensemble without overpowering it.

Ned Eisenberg charmingly offers a focused portrait of amiability and despair as Ben Stark.  Marilyn Matarrese brings empathy and dimension to the role of the frustrated and domineering Belle with her precise performance.

Larry Bull poignantly conveys the pathos of Dr. Cooper sliding downward personally and economically. “Why can’t I make a living?” is delivered with great anguish.  Michael Keyloun as “Frenchy” ably captures the character’s cynicism.  Lou Liberatore gleefully embraces Willy Wax’s hard-edged behavior with his unrepentant performance: “A man is coarse or he doesn’t survive.”

As Cleo Singer, ranging from shrill to engaging, Katie McClellan, with her forceful performance and character’s plot twists becomes the central character by the end.  With both very well played contrived haughtiness and tenderness, she captures the essence of a young striver seeking to claw out of poverty on her own terms.

Ned Eisenberg and Michael Keyloun in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Ned Eisenberg and Michael Keyloun in a scene from The Peccadillo Theater Company production of “Rocket to the Moon” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Director Dan Wackerman has reverently recreated the look and sound of Odets.  The actors all give performances that are true to the era in terms of their delivery and their emotions.  His inspired staging and pacing overcomes the sometimes repetitive writing and the relative lack of major developments.

With unpadded wooden furniture, an old black wire fan, an ancient typewriter, large windows that look out to the garish painting representing the seedy “Hotel Algiers,” and numerous other period piece details, Harry Feiner’s set design is integral to the production’s success.  It is like a museum exhibit of life in the 1930’s.  His lighting design is equally accomplished, accentuating the worn-out quality of the setting, as well giving the sense of stifling heat.  Amy C. Bradshaw’s excellent costumes authentically evoke the sight of real people dressed according to their personalities and life stations of that time.

Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was hailed as a great American playwright for his social conscience works produced in the 1930’s  by The Group Theater, which included Awake and Sing!, Waiting For Lefty, and Golden Boy.  After being a Hollywood screenwriter, he wrote plays such as The Big Knife and The Country Girl.  Following his cooperative testimony at The House Committee on Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, his career and personal life suffered.

Often concerned with the mundane lives of working class people who express themselves with florid intelligence, he had a strongly idiosyncratic style that was very popular with theatergoers and critics.  He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1938 during the 131 performance run of Rocket to the Moon.

Like many acclaimed playwrights he fell out of favor over time.  This loving production is a welcome opportunity to experience Odets’ affecting theatrical vision.

Rocket to the Moon (through March 28th, 2015)

The Peccadillo Theater Company

Theatre at Saint Clements, 423 West 46th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.thepeccadillo.com

Running time: two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (674 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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