Theatre Pro Rata’s production of “Rocket Man” knows how to make a good first impression.
Walking into Crane Theater’s malleable space, theatergoers are greeted by Ursula K. Bowden’s evocative set. Depicting an attic in a modest home, it mostly looks like an actual attic, crammed with furniture and lamps and stuff. But parts are more suggested than fully realized, including a skylight that hangs in the middle of empty space, so the construction feels like it’s perched somewhere between reality and a dream.
That’s exactly where Steven Dietz’s drama exists, too. The satisfying first act is the more realistic one: Donny (Matt Wall) is an architect who has turned his back on his career and is in the process of giving away the contents of his home.
Why he is garage-sale-ing his life gradually becomes clear as Wall — whose warm, foggy voice perfectly fits his haunted character — reveals the quiet desperation behind Donny’s gently humorous exterior. Having lost his grip on his work, his wife (Rachel Austin) and their 16-year-old daughter (Anna Beth Baker), Donny has fixated on that skylight as a way of restarting his life.
So far, so good. “Rocket Man” would be a fine one-act play, albeit one that owes a good deal to a classic that also features a troubled man who is disconnected from his work and family, as well as ominous references to a gas line. It feels as if Dietz reached the end of his first act, thought, “Wow, this is a lot like ‘Death of a Salesman,’ ” (with a bit of Raymond Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ tossed in) and then resolved to veer in a new direction in the dreamlike second act, a sci-fi-ish variation that depicts the characters in an alternate reality where time goes backwards, so they grow younger rather than older.
The idea, essentially, is: Might we live our lives differently if we knew when they were going to end?
Fair enough, but the play gets bogged down in age-is-wasted-on-the-elderly jokes, and the temporal shenanigans don’t pay off in any meaningful way. As a result, we begin to notice cracks in the production. Baker is fine, for instance, but is the fact that she’s not believable as a teenager a casting misstep or a deliberate choice? And is the large amount of hand-based acting that happens in the second act supposed to tip us off that we’re no longer in the real world or is it the result of actors being uncomfortable with the material?
Maybe Dietz wants us to be unsure. Maybe the point is that life is a rocket, blasting us into the unknown. But the play isn’t precise enough to make that point land and, as a result, it doesn’t quite reach its destination.