On stage

Review: "Rocket to the Moon" by Robert Lachman



A powerful and funny piece of theater is currently in production at Bard College.

Clifford Odets was one of America's greatest playwrights. His first play, "Waiting for Lefty," was produced in 1935 and he never looked back producing such powerful works as "Golden Boy," "Clash by Night" and several successful Hollywood screenplays. His sharp, incisive writing in the screenplay for "Sweet Smell of Success" is a good example of his capabilities. His work was forged in the cruelty and horrors of the Great Depression and reflected his social beliefs in the rights of the workingman over the corporate state. He believed in the Socialist Revolution of the 1930s and named names, along with Elia Kazan to the House of Un-American Activities Committee. He was an angry young man with a deep romantic streak.

In 1938, he wrote "Rocket to the Moon," a "romance in three acts" that pits the character of young, idealistic Cleo Singer against the older generation in what Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theater, considered to be Odets' best play.

With a summer program that focuses on theater, opera and dance by major American artistic figures of the 20th century, Bard's third annual SummerScape is presenting "Rocket to the Moon" at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College through July 24.

Produced by True Love Productions and directed by the talented young Daniel Fish, "Rocket to the Moon" is a touching, funny, insightful piece of work that is as true today as it was in 1938.

The action all takes place in a New York City dentist's office as Ben Stark DDS, played with laconic intensity by David Chandler (who has appeared in such Broadway plays as "Lost in Yonkers" and "Death of a Salesman"), faces his 40th year with dim prospects of a hopeful future. His wife, Belle (Drama Desk nominee Stephanie Roth Haberle), is a shrewish, controlling woman, who lost her only child three years previously and, because of her husband's lack of ambition, is able to run his life.

Belle's wealthy father, Mr. Prince, played with undeniable relish by the marvelous David Margulies (Tony's lawyer on "The Sopranos," Broadway performances in "Angels in America," "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and many others), is estranged from his daughter and constantly visits Ben with offers of a whole new uptown practice (which his wife forces Ben to refuse), and some of the best and funniest lines in the play. Along with Phil Cooper (Christopher McCann), as Dr. Stark's drunkenly depressed fellow dentist; Frenchy (Henry Stram), the self-effacing foot doctor down the hall; and impresario Willie Wax (Danny Mastrogiorgio), all roads lead to Cleo (Kelly Hutchingson, "Catch Me If You Can"), Dr. Stark's beautiful young new receptionist. What ensues is a battle for Ben and Belle's future with Cleo in the middle and Mr. Prince and Wax on the outside looking in.

One of the best things about this production is the set design. This is no ordinary play where the audience sits en masse in front of the stage. Here, the staging is truly remarkable. Theater Two is a smaller and more versatile space than the Sosnoff Theater at the Fisher Center, and "Rocket to the Moon" set designer Andrew Lieberman (2004 Drama Desk nominee for the Off-Broadway production of Charles Mee's "Wintertime") has built a finely detailed dentist's office, complete with waiting room, receptionist office and workspace. Then he has enclosed it in glass and positioned half the audience on stage left and half on stage right, facing each other. With this setup, we not only watch the actors, but also revel in the audience reactions. It is quite an achievement. It's as if we are flies on the wall of the office watching the action inside it.

The other great thing "Rocket to the Moon" has going for it are the actors. These are professionals who give strong, nuanced performances. The emotion of the piece builds slowly but is never dull as we meet each character and watch them - "under glass" - bring this classic drama to its compelling climax.

"Rocket to the Moon" is a play filled with the joys and pain of life and love. The difficulties of marriage are front and center, as is the promise of youth. How the past, the future and the present interact to create an impossible situation for the protagonists makes this a must-see event.

Mr. Prince gives his son-in-law some trenchant advice during one of their regular bull sessions at the office while Ben is drowning in his own indecision: "Ben, take a rocket to the moon! Explode! Get out of the coffin by Labor Day!"

I suggest you take his advice. Get out of your rut and enjoy the cultural wonders available at Bard's Fisher Center. If "Rocket to the Moon" is any indication, you won't be disappointed.