“Isn’t life disappointing?” The line comes near the end of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but it could just as well prove the mantra of every character in Clifford Odets’ Rocket to the Moon, a drama about mid-life compromises and settling for mediocrity. Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), a dentist who once showed more promise than those who have since surpassed him professionally, spends much of his day allowing others to trample over him. First and foremost is his wife, Belle (Marilyn Matarrese), whose domineering behavior hides the wounds of a marriage gone cold; then there’s his widower father-in-law, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary), who is estranged from his daughter and encourages Ben to pursue an extramarital affair; and finally Dr. Cooper (Larry Bull), an alcoholic who shares Ben’s office but hasn’t paid his half of the rent in months. Nebbish, dithering, Ben sees a chance to retake control of his life in his new, young secretary, Cleo Singer (Katie McClellan).
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that most of these people are too old or too timid to change. “In our youth we collect materials to build a bridge to the moon,” Ben tells Mr. Prince, “but in our old age, we use the materials to build a shack.” The two compete for Cleo’s affection, but while the latter asks too much of her, the former doesn’t ask enough; neither, ultimately, are able to find that loving middle ground between dependence and freedom.
The cast here is good, especially Mr. Hadary, who plays Mr. Prince like an intimidating rabbi, assaulting others with philosophical problems (“What is the secret of life?”) and aphorisms (“The universe is governed by a committee; one man couldn’t make so many mistakes”). Occasionally, he punctuates his statements with the question and answer, “Right? Right!” spoken quickly like two successive gunshots, preventing any opportunity for disagreement. He does a great service to Odets’ writing, too, by reintroducing their Jewish rhythms and cadences; without them, the dialogue can often sound strained.
Still, of all the major American playwrights of the ‘thirties, Odets has suffered most from the passage of time. His work is often creaky—as when Cleo cries, “I have a throat to sing with, a heart to love with!”—and his attitude towards women somewhat questionable; for example, when Ben tries to get Belle out of his office by taking her to a shop downstairs, he says, “A soda for you, pipe tobacco for me,” and there is a sense that this infantalization is not entirely self-conscious, even when he recognizes, through the voice of another character, that “they get a dirty deal, the girls.” Indeed, the image of a dentist smoking a pipe is the perfect emblem—of a play, of a playwright, and of a worldview that have become more or less anachronisms.