Compared with the three great American playwrights who made their reputation in the first half of the twentieth century – Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller – Clifford Odets is rarely staged in this country. His brand of earnest left-wing political proselytizing is uncomfortably close to agit-prop drama for his critics, while his plays seem driven more by ideas and character than by plot or structure. But this is unfair because his dialogue is full of colloquial poetry and quick-fire wit, while his strong sense of human justice and equality, often expressed within a Jewish New York family setting and a big influence on Miller, still packs a punch today.
Odets’ 1938 play Rocket to the Moon is atypical in that it concentrates far more on romantic relationships and personal fulfilment than on political issues and social welfare as in Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing! Set in a sultry summer in a failing dentists’ practice in Manhattan, the play examines the effect that the arrival of the new free-spirited secretary Cleo Singer has on down-in the-mouth practitioner Ben Stark and others.
Her appealingly naïve candour and uninhibited sensuality soon leads to an attachment with the unassertive Ben, who is under the thumb of his domineering wife Belle, yet to fully get over the miscarriage of their baby four years ago. Like a candle with moths, Cleo also attracts Belle’s rich, estranged father Mr Prince (who has offered to loan Ben the money to buy a better practice), not to mention three other men working in the building. It seems decision time has come.
Odets’ themes in Rocket to the Moon revolve around the need to be true to oneself whatever the risks or temptations involved. It takes courage and commitment to follow one’s dreams and ambitions, but the compromising alternative is to stagnate in unrealized potential. However, despite some dazzling metaphorical repartee, the play’s central love triangle never really convinces or compels, while the overlong story has insufficient suspense or variation in pace.
Director Angus Jackson fails to inject enough urgency into the drama so that it does not catch fire until last act. Anthony Ward’s impressively detailed period set features a high-rise dentists’ waiting room, office and treatment room, with another skyscraper visible behind and blue sky beckoning alluringly above. Joseph Millson plays the irritatingly indecisive Ben in mid-life crisis with fully believable self-conflict. Jessica Raine gives the radiant fantasist Cleo a touching vulnerability, though the miscast Keeley Hawes’ lack of stage experience shows in her unconvincing, one-note portrait of the shrewish Belle. Nicholas Woodeson, with some of the play’s most scintillating lines, adds flamboyant eccentricity as the unashamedly pragmatic Mr Prince.
Rocket to the Moon does not represent Odets at his best but nonetheless by the end you feel that you have been on a journey with the characters.