This is the second revival of a Clifford Odets play this season (THE COUNTRY GIRL was revived successfully on the West End -- see below). I have always considered Odets an underrated playwright. At his best, he is the equal of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and far superior to the clunky, over-rated Eugene O'Neill. His territory was second generation Americans trying to survive economically and spiritually in New York during the depression. ROCKET TO THE MOON (1938) takes place in a dentist's office. It is summer during the depression so there are no patients. Ben Stark is a sweet 40 year old who has a childlike desire to please everyone. Belle, his wife wants him to be tougher and more practical but also more loving. Their marriage is childless -- a child died and she cannot have another -- and Belle needs both economic and emotional security. She isn't on speaking terms with her wealthy father because he didn't offer her mother enough love. Both Ben and his father fall in love with Ben's young assistant, Cleo, who is a strange combination of innocence and experience. Cleo fabricates most of her biography but insists on honesty from the people around her. In her own way, she is emotionally demanding, but not overbearing. She's young, sexy and full of hope. Both Ben and his father fall in love with her, but neither can offer her what she wants.
There isn't much action in ROCKET TO THE MOON and not much in the way of a narrative. People talk on hot summer afternoons and evenings. Characters philosophize. We see the desperation of one dentist who eventually has to sell his blood to pay his debts. Everyone is lonely and frightened. Everyone wants some economic security and a reason to live in an irrational world. There is no God in Odets's world. People are flawed, but decent and depend on other people for any meaning in their lives. But all the characters are so well drawn and the dialogue so convincingly real but at the same time eloquent that one is totally absorbed for the play's two and three-quarters hours.
Typical of National Theatre productions, the set is far too massive. This enormous dentist's office with thirty-foor high walls, is like a giant Edward Hopper painting. Angus Jackson has directed his fine cast well. As always, Joseph Millson totaly inhabits his character. Millson is one of the finest actors of his generation. It is wonderful to see him back doing real work after wasting him time and talent for a year in LOVE NEVER DIES. We see Ben's weakness, his eagerness to please, and his awareness that there simply isn't much inside. Jessica Raine's voice and fake New York accent are irritating at times, but she captures both what is loveable and what is potentially destructive about Cleo. Keeley Hawes is too beautiful for Belle but she finds the vulnerabillity and insecurity under Belle's bossiness. This tv star has lists no stage credits in the program which may explain why I had trouble hearing her in her early scenes. Nicholas Wodeson and Peter Sullivan were their usual brilliant selves. Mr. Prince, Belle's estranged father, offers the only real humor in the play and Wodeson lit up the stage every time he strutted into the office. Sullivan captured the desperation of an able man who can no longer support his family and has lost his pride.
ROCKET TO THE MOON seems quite timely in a time of raising unemployment and a general sense of financial unease. Odets' characters have an unlikely combination of desperation and optimism. It is their emotional complexity, their contradictions that make them among the most fascinating characters in American drama. I would have preferred to see this fine revival in a more intimate space than the unfriendly Lyttleton Theatre, but I'm so glad I saw it.
ROCKET TO THE MOON. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. March 29, 2011.