Heavenly trip

New Theatre Company fires a stunning Rocket to the Moon

The neglect of American playwright Clifford Odets is partly his fault, partly ours. It's certainly true that Odets--who applied his talents to screenwriting but could barely stomach the Hollywood establishment in the '40s and '50s--had a sanctimonious tone in his author's voice. Indeed, his political affiliations were more naked than that of any major American writer this century.

He pledged much time, money, and energy to the American labor movement, and pulled this affiliation into his plays, particularly concerned as he was with the financial ruin of good people. Unfortunately, it seemed that only good people were devastated by capitalism, and when it happened to bad (rich) people, they were clearly receiving comeuppance. He was an ardent socialist who, in order to portray the degradation that materialism wreaks on ambitious minds, deliberately ignored Stalin's rampant exploitation of the Russian population. His plays are full of people with grand dreams that dissolve into anonymous pursuits of wealth.

Clifford Odets tended toward propagandistic simplicity when creating his desperate, lonely characters. Unfortunately, America in the era of supply-side mantras and international free trade sneers at anyone who dares suggest that unchecked economic opportunism might have a spoiling effect on our national character. Nowadays you don't have to be as naive as Odets to be lumped in his earnest company; just express a doubt that money can buy happiness or morality and bang!--you're a resentful pinko.

Peer beneath the cathedrallike infrastructure of leftist ideology in his plays, however, and you see that the same noble concern for the "little guy" is found in the works of Sophocles, Moliere, and Ibsen. Odets the socialist simply put a partisan spin on the tiny details of tiny lives that would have been lost if we'd never abandoned the souped-up biodramas of great leaders adored by the Greeks. Tattooed though it is with Bolshevik campaign slogans, Odets' heart beats true for the little people who get lost in the shuffle of history.

Bruce Coleman, artistic director of New Theatre Company, spotted the gold nugget crusted over with ancient political trends in Odets' Rocket to the Moon. Coleman has given it a hearty spit shine and, in the process, rubbed away several whole characters and scenes for what he insists is the Dallas premiere of Odets' 60-year-old Depression-era anti-romance. We'll take his word for it--because even if Rocket to the Moon had appeared on a Dallas stage sometime before today, it surely wasn't as sleek, fleet-footed, and authoritative as New Theatre Company's production.

As performed in Coleman's significantly edited version, Rocket to the Moon is so tight and lean it sometimes feels more like an outline for a drama than a drama itself. All complaints about bully pulpits aside, Odets sent his characters to their individual fates with a narrative efficiency that belies his sloppy romanticism. Shorn of his singsong street lingo and soliloquies about corruption and redemption, Odets bustles about the stage like a fussy old domestic, tidying up bits of business here and there until the audience is left with a clean perception of what has just transpired. Rarely is the destiny of an Odets character left in doubt; as a result, a heavily streamlined version of his text can carry all the dramatic weight of a synopsis.

Coleman's gamble turns out to be his actors' victory. Rocket to the Moon boasts four terrific performances that so thoroughly wring the author's words for emotional truth, that we're all too aware of the few occasions when an eloquent performer hits the brick wall of a stilted line.

The entire play transpires inside a dentist's office during a few weeks of a particularly hot New York City summer. Dr. Stark (Jim Jorgensen) is the practitioner who finds himself smiling valiantly into a comfortable middle age that offers few opportunities for mirth. He often finds himself in the role of peacemaker between his ultraefficient, frosty wife, Belle (Moira Wilson), and her widower father, Mr. Prince (T.A. Taylor), a wealthy old Jewish curmudgeon who has taken a shine to Dr. Stark. They get along fantastically despite the presence of a woman Mr. Prince can't stand--his own daughter.

Just as the household in William Inge's Come Back Little Sheba was upset by the arrival of a dreamy boarder, the loveless marriage between Dr. Stark and Belle is put to the test when Cleo (Charlotte Akin)--a dental assistant who wears too much perfume, no hosiery, and dreams of being a dancer--enters the doctor's life. Mr. Prince, always ready with an observant quip, attempts to drive Cleo like a wedge between his daughter and son-in-law. In the end, his own emotions rule and drive him to a confrontation with Dr. Stark.

Clifford Odets was an old-school leftist, which means he wasn't much of a feminist, and his female characters suffer as a result. We never quite get a sense of complete lives for Cleo and Belle, probably because Odets has employed them as dramatic devices to examine the choices the men have made. Nevertheless, Moira Wilson and Charlotte Akin never stoop to the easy gestures you'd expect from the stereotypes they represent--the prude and the dreamer, respectively. Akin, particularly, could have gone the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed route, but has chosen an edgier incarnation for Cleo.

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