A friend mentioned last week that he wanted to see Clifford Odets’ “Rocket to the Moon,” which opened Saturday at the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s New Century Theatre.
“When do you ever get a chance to see ‘Rocket to the Moon?’ ” he asked.
Rarely. And rarely will you see it done this well. Gremlin Theatre’s staging, directed by Ellen Fenster, crackles with raw and lively energy. Every actor brings an urgent necessity to characters who carry within their small human lives a frustrated aspiration for happiness. They are eccentric in measure, lonely and desperate, clinging to whomever will call them a friend.
Odets’ dialogue, his canny observations, his turns of phrase and crisply imagined perorations remind us of his place among the top rank of American playwrights. This play from 1938 lacks the political bent that was his signature, yet the interpersonal story of people caught in the traps of their existence feels funny, sad, casual and imperative.
Peter Christian Hansen plays Ben Stark, a dentist whose dreams of success are being suffocated in a hot New York office suite. Poor Ben. He is an accommodating product of his own ineffectiveness, his inability to stand on his feet and exercise the heartless resolve necessary for fulfillment.
His wife, Belle (Daisy Macklin Skarning), discourages Ben’s interest in buying new equipment and upgrading to orthodontia. Too risky, she says.
In fact, everything is too risky in Belle’s world, played by Skarning with the edgy unease of a person who holds so tightly to her felicity that she has strangled it.
Into this dreary relationship bounces Cleo Singer (Jane Froiland), Ben’s office assistant. Her self-constructed life, dazzling smile and false confidence soon bewitch Ben. Froiland’s effervescence curls around a strong spine and an integrity in Cleo. She is not merely a prop. She wants love and contentment like anyone else. Unlike the wobbly Ben, though, she has the courage to pursue her goals.
Craig Johnson demonstrates why he is a small-theater treasure in his performance as Mr. Prince, Belle’s father. A rich dandy, he goads Ben, who is “an iceberg — already three quarters under water,” to break out of a life in which “every day is Monday,” even if that means ditching Belle. At one point, as Cleo has run off, crying, Johnson’s Prince notes acidly that the young woman must have got something in her eye — “a glass splinter from my daughter’s heart.”
David Coral gets his moment as a dentist in Ben’s office who, in the absence of any patients, has taken to booze as a hobby. His drunken lament about the Depression economy is as close as Odets gets to politics here — an absence that was noted disparagingly by his contemporaries.
Edwin Strout fashions a small gem from his assignment as Willy Wax, a slippery eel with an inflated ego and an eye for the coquettish Cleo. Jason Rojas plays a doctor from down the hall who argues for sanity amid the crazy goings-on.
All this unhappiness, these unsavory creatures and their little forays into life make for a deliciously funny, poignant, memorable play. Thanks to Gremlin for bringing such vitality to Odets. It is indeed a singular opportunity.