Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Rocket to the Moon"
Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT
Clifford Odets (1906-1963) must be seen as one of the first Jewish-American playwrights, wielding an enormous influence over the burgeoning theater of realism. Moreover, creating characters who were torn between practical considerations and their dreams, he influenced subsequent writers like Arthur Miller and the current crop of Jewish-American playwrights.
There is no denying his importance in theater history. This playwright of the 1930s brought the devastating Depression years into sharp focus. And his gritty, impassioned dramas gave the Group Theatre, with its social, political, and theatrical messages, the material needed to take its place in the sun.
Currently Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut (within the greater New York area) is doing an excellent service in bringing that era, that playwright, and that theater company to life.
On stage is Odets’ 1938 drama “Rocket to the Moon.” But clearly this particular play is both dated and a lesser Odets’s work, in fact a recycling of his finer and more famous earlier drama, “Awake and Sing.”
The same characters reappear, albeit in a somewhat different setting. “Awake and Sing” was the story of a Bronx Jewish family struggling to put bread on the table while yearning toward higher aspirations. “Rocket to the Moon” offers a similar struggle between dreams and survival skills. This time it is a dentist, his wife and his colleagues. The formidable—and eminently practical--matron of “Awake and Sing” has become the dentist’s wife, and the frustrated hero is not the Bronx family’s son, but the dentist himself. The lead characters appear to be Jewish, though not specifically identified as such.
“Rocket” deals with the dentist’s involvement with his young nubile assistant. Cleo, the assistant, is every man’s desire incarnate, and in fact three male characters in the play vie for her attentions. But Ben, the dentist, a wimp dominated by his wife, appears to be her choice. The main conflict lies not between characters, but within Ben himself.
This particular production, under Daniel Fish’s direction, puts a new polish on the old chestnut. In particular, Andrew Lieberman’s slowly revolving set is most remarkable, offering an ever-changing view in each scene. (One might well be on top of the Marriott Hotel, with a 360-degree vista of Manhattan.) But it is all in Dr. Stark’s waiting room, providing a different image for each scene. The set is a room within a room, complete with walls, floor and ceiling. One sees into the room at different angles, as the story unfolds.
The stage design, though most striking, is matched by solid direction and generally good casting. But it is the supporting actors, not the lead, who are strongest. David Chandler, as the dentist at the center of the play, is disappointingly flat.
David Margulies, playing the elderly father who courts Cleo, runs away with the show. Margulies, a Jewish actor, has a long history of fine work, including his own one-man show. In this play, he is fortunate to have the play’s sharpest and funniest lines, lines which he delivers with superb effect. Louisa Krause creates a fully-dimensional impassioned Cleo, and Danny Mastrogiorgio, as one of her suitors, is another compelling presence on stage.
“Rocket to the Moon” is not calculated to create new Odets fans. Nonetheless this Long Wharf production is a solid interpretation of the piece and a reminder of one Jewish playwright’s role in American theater history.
-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 3, 2006