The Independent


Friday, July 22, 2005

A rarely seen Odets returns in a striking production

THOSE INTERESTED in period American drama and/or the illusive craft of playwriting should make a serious attempt to see one of the three remaining performances of Clifford Odets' 1938 play, Rocket to the Moon. You will be well rewarded.



Summerscape2005 at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (in Theatre Two) at Bard College has mounted a superlative production of the seldom seen work. The production values are impeccable and the seven-member cast exemplary.

Thought by many to be the heir to Eugene O'Neill, Odets wrote in an unforced unmannered style. A product of the Depression and forged by anti-Semitism, he was governed by a strong social conscience. Theater legend Harold Clurman, Rocket to the Moon's original director said the play contained some of Odets' most beautiful writing.

Subtitled A Romance in Three Acts, the play explores raw emotions. The current production, under the masterful direction of Daniel Fish, also makes clear that Rocket to the Moon is very funny.

The action takes place during one hot New York City summer. Ben Stark, in a deft portrayal by David Chandler, is a middle-aged, struggling dentist who once had higher hopes for himself. He is now mired in a failing marriage and constantly harangued by his wealthy, manipulative father-in-law, a man who delights in pointing out his son-in-law's weaknesses.

Over his wife's objections, Stark hires a receptionist/secretary, Cleo Singer, a na´ve, vulnerable dreamer and would-be dancer, who is desperately searching for an identity and true love. Both men quickly become smitten. Odets described Cleo as "the hope of American life, the most typical hope."

As Cleo, Kelly Hutchinson, is utterly amazing. She is a slight girl but there is nevertheless a great deal going on inside her: rage, fear, despair, desire, anger, joy, and each emotion, by turns, is readily visible, sometimes painfully, on her expressive face.

As the father-in-law, Mr. Prince, a man in his sixties frantically attempting to regain his youth, David Margulies delivers a bravura performance. He doesn't recite lines, he declaims them, orates them, his voice booming, his jabbing finger (or walking stick or umbrella) serving to punctuate his ideas and underline point after point.

Margulies is a short man, but on stage he easily becomes a Prometheus and the bible's Abraham rolled into one.

Another outstanding performance is Christopher McCann's as Dr. Phil Cooper, a dentist sharing office space with Stark (but unable to pay for it). Copper's frequent trips to the water cooler for what he calls "municipal champagne" is a nicely timed running gag by McCann. The third act breakdown ("I'm falling apart by inches.") is riveting and wrenching. Cooper's the slow descent into being an out and out drunk finely calibrated.

Stephanie Roth Haberle as Stark's grieving wife, Henry Stram, as Frenchy, the Swedish foot doctor down the hall, and Danny Mastrogiorgio, as Willy Wax, a Broadway producer/choreographer, round out the cast, each contributing solid, more than capable performances. Although Mastrogiorgio really doesn't have the build for a dancer he is suitably oily as the lecherous lothario Wax.

The realistic set, cleverly designed by Andrew Lieberman, is Stark's waiting room as well as his office and a workroom. It fits snugly into the black-box space with the audience sitting on two sides. It's configuration, however, forces the actors much of the time to speak to one side or the other, away from the audience, resulting in hard to hear bits of dialogue.

The period clothes by Kaye Voyce are right on. The lighting, designed by Jane Cox, is extraordinary, considering the difficulty of lighting a set with only front and back light. Yes, because there is no sidelight or down light there are frequent shadows across actors' faces, but those shadows merely add a certain amount of intensity to the action. And it is very easy to ascertain the time of day outside the office's curtain-less windows, so artful is the use of offstage lights.

Each act of Rocket to the Moon is carefully constructed. Each actor has his or her moment and each scene builds to its appropriate climax, everything in perfect balance. It's an expert lesson in dramaturgy. The third act does flounder a bit at the end. The motivations are note properly supported or sustained and it all seems a bit pat, but nevertheless the scene and the act still work. Not bad for a sixty-seven-year-old play!

Using the simplest language, Odets has beautifully told a tale of man's dealings with love and loss, his postponed dreams and his yearnings for a fulfilled life. A word to the wise: the chances of your seeing another production of this play are only slightly possible - the show closes on Sunday. Chances of seeing another production of Rocket to the Moon this brilliantly realized are, frankly, impossible. Tickets 845-758-7900