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Rocket to the Moon

Writers' Theatre

The Time of Your Life

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

At the end of the 1930s the great democratic experiment that had swept Europe and America 150 years earlier seemed poised on the brink of failure. The "free economy," which had long promised independence in exchange for hard work, was revealed as a jury-rigged system that favored capital at the expense of labor. Roosevelt's support for reforms like social security, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining began to be perceived as nascent socialism. In Europe, Hitler scooped up Czechoslovakia and promised to annihilate the Jewish race, Franco fought to impose his brand of fascism on Spain, and Stalin's systematic extermination of "internal enemies" revealed the ugly totalitarian side of the 20-year-old Soviet experiment.

It was only natural that Clifford Odets would be called upon to decry the world's precarious state, after his emergence in 1935 with the spectacularly successful agitprop work Waiting for Lefty. Members of his own Group Theater urged him to write an anti-Nazi play. The Democratic Party hoped for a script that would champion Roosevelt and help him to an unprecedented third term. Odets himself was acutely aware of the world's political health; after reading an account of crowds in Prague bursting into their national anthem as German troops rolled into the city, Odets wrote, "Can a writer write in the face of these things? Yes, he must write in the face of these things!"

But the playwright was nearly paralyzed by his personal situation. He felt helpless to duplicate his overwhelming initial success (in 1935 he'd had four plays on Broadway). His marriage to film star Luise Rainer was crumbling, sending the writer into bouts of the depression and mania that had plagued him for years. In 1938 he abruptly ceased work on all sociohistorical scripts and turned his attention to his "merely personal dentist play," Rocket to the Moon.

Ben Stark, a 37-year-old dentist who was once a pioneer in orthodontia but has settled for a safe, unremarkable career in a tiny New York office, has been hoping to expand his practice with the help of his father-in-law, Mr. Prince. That idea is scuttled when Stark's controlling wife, Belle, dismisses it as impractical. Sapped of energy, Stark can barely manage to fill two cups of water at once to feed the drooping petunias in his window box. ("Try one at a time, dear," Belle patiently intones. Then she adds, "Any day now I'm expecting to have to powder and diaper you.") Into the mix comes Stark's new receptionist, Cleo Singer, shapely and naive with visions of Broadway stardom in her eyes. Stark's office mate--a cynical podiatrist nicknamed Frenchy--gives her the job because of her "jangling body," and after a bit of coaxing from Mr. Prince, Stark begins to believe that his married life has become a "long sleep" and that the only way he can reawaken his fiery spirit is to have an affair with Cleo.

While the route to liberation in Odets's previous plays--Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Golden Boy--required an overhaul of the American sociopolitical system, here liberation is purely a matter of individual will. It's no surprise that the left-wing press had no patience for Rocket to the Moon when it opened in late November 1938--New Masses dismissed it as a script about "problems people solved the day before yesterday." But the mainstream press cheered Odets's sudden passionate interest in human psychology; he even landed on the cover of Time. To a contemporary audience Rocket to the Moon may seem dated and stagy, but its portrait of two constrained souls--Stark and Cleo--aching for explosive new selves still has the ring of truth.

In director William Brown's handsome, well-paced production, however, that ring too often becomes a dull thud. The production gets off on the wrong foot in the opening scene, as Stark and Belle bicker about his career. Despite the script's abundant evidence that Stark is a nebbish and Belle a matron--nearly every character comments on their imbalanced relationship--Brown places them on an equal footing. Steven Hinger's Stark has backbone to spare while Karen Janes Woditsch's Belle is oddly tremulous and plaintive. As a result Stark's central dilemma is never established and he has no real stake, other than the purely libidinal, in dallying with his secretary. What should be a striving toward an entirely new self becomes a passing fancy.

It doesn't help that Brown's cast sport a variety of acting styles. While Hinger's rather wooden performance tends toward naturalism, his office mates--P.J. Powers as Frenchy and Mark Richard as fellow dentist Cooper--seem plucked from a cross between film noir and screwball comedy. As the imperious, insinuating Mr. Prince, Larry Yando seems to have stepped in from a Tennessee Williams play.

Fortunately Kymberly Mellen as Cleo blows open a window of truth on the play. While her portrayal is a carefully styled construction that nearly parodies the Judy Holiday clueless ingenue, she gives it such honesty and passion that Cleo becomes more "real" than the supposedly realistic Stark. Ingeniously exploiting a 1930s type, she makes the now strained conventions of Odets's poetic realism feel natural--this Cleo could not exist anywhere but in a Depression-era play. By the end, when Odets makes it clear that only Cleo has the potential for liberation, and only through herself, Mellen has claimed the play as her own. She even delivers Odets's almost laughably sentimental plea--"Don't you think there's a world of joyful men and women? Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing?"--with enough heart to bring a lump to your throat.

In the year following the debut of Rocket to the Moon, a decidedly unpolitical playwright (unless you call "championing the human spirit" a political act) took over Broadway with a play steeped in the day's political realities. William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, which earned a Pulitzer and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, dispensed with the rigorous narratives at which Odets and his contemporaries excelled. Saroyan opted instead for a more atmospheric approach, as a host of regulars stumble in and out of Nick's Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant and Entertainment Palace in San Francisco. While millionaire Joe is nursing a guilty conscience--he made a killing during the Depression in some unnamed business venture--and committing random acts of charity, various patrons come and go, trying to find a bit of dignity in a world on the brink of economic collapse.

Saroyan offers no political solution to the quagmire he portrays (although he takes an unmistakable antiunion stance), favoring a fiercely humanistic approach that encourages us to look for the good in people. It's easy to dismiss the work as sentimental, but the play's heart lies in its careful portrayals of day laborers, wannabe artists, drunks, society types, and working stiffs scoping each other out in the great American leveler, the cheap dive.

Director Tina Landau is no stranger to atmospheric work; for her 1998 Steppenwolf staging of The Berlin Circle (an adaptation of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle), she put an awful lot of people onto a decrepit set for a couple hours of moody near-stasis. Something similar happens here, at least during the production's 90-minute first act. Landau rarely checks her penchant for environmental theater; she not only puts her cast onstage "in the bar" for 30 minutes before the play begins but drapes an assortment of picketers, streetwalkers, bums, and riffraff around G.W. Mercier's cavernous set. Unfortunately all these incidental players regularly pull focus from the relationships we should be watching. Worse, they tend to ring false. Seeing a few actors carrying signs and yelling at someone offstage evokes labor unrest only in the most perfunctory way.

More problematic, Landau gives the first act a lackadaisical pace, as though simply occupying this massive set with bowed head and stooped shoulders were nine-tenths of the actor's job. The cast seem to merely toy with Saroyan's characters, for the most part making simple, obvious choices. And as in Rocket to the Moon, their dabbling is done in a variety of clashing styles. Jeff Perry as desperately good-hearted millionaire Joe and Guy Adkins as exuberant hoofer-in-training Harry offer two of the most complex and interesting performances, but their characters might as well be in different plays.

The second act is more focused, thanks in large part to Saroyan's streamlining of narrative threads. But Landau's broad, obvious choices continue. The vice-squad captain determined to shut down the bar is as bad as a bad cop can be. Whenever a poignant moment arises the characters appear in isolated pools of light. And in the final moments, as the cast somberly sing the opening lines of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" ("There may be trouble ahead..."), we hear warplanes as well as FDR proclaiming "a day that shall live in infamy." One would expect a director of Landau's stature to give her audience a bit more credit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow.

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