Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon is a gently humorous comedy of one sultry summer in the life of Ben Stark, DDS. Odets (Awake and Sing, Waiting for Lefty, and Golden Boy) was a founding member of the legendary Group Theatre, which dominated the New York scene in the 1930s and was committed to a deeply political vision. It drew its strength from an extraordinary ensemble of actors, writers, and directors, including Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Luther and Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. And speaking as a playgoer whose familiarity with Odets is largely limited to his reputation as a Depression-era leftist spokesman, this play comes as a refreshing surprise.
As presented by the Aurora Theatre Company in its new space at the Berkeley City Club, Rocket is warm, funny, rueful, and tender. Romantic optimism is balanced with realism, and under Joy Carlin's confident direction, the production never strays from the play's poignant heart.
It is 1938, the height of the Depression, and Dr. Ben Stark (Howard Swain) wants to take his quixotic father-in-law up on an offer to establish him in a new, improved practice. Ben's wife, Belle (Amy Potozkin), who hasn't spoken to her father in 10 years, objects; Ben, the quintessential henpecked husband, quickly wilts and falls into line. He understands that Belle's obsessive need to control every aspect of his life stems from her grief at losing a baby some three years ago. Ben is a sympathetic kind of guy willing to cut everyone a lot of slack — including Dr. Phil Cooper (Paul Finocchiaro), who is three months in arrears to Ben on office rent. Or Mr. Prince (Joe Bellan), Belle's rich and lonely father. Or the pretty, new (incompetent) assistant, Cleo Singer (Nancy Carlin), with whom Ben falls in love, aided and abetted by the mischievous Mr. Prince.
This is a play about dreams and the murky territory of the unrealized self. Mr. Prince, a widower whose own wife's fear of taking risks made his life a misery, sees the same thing happening to Ben. Belle has him “right where she wants [him] — like an iceberg, three-quarters under water.” Ben takes to heart Mr. Prince's suggestion that at age 40, he's ready for “special adventures.” But his odyssey of the heart is complicated by Cleo, whose own search for true love becomes the play's driving center and grows more and more poignant as the hope-lessness of their affair becomes clear.
Of course, Odets never implies that things will work out between them. Quite the opposite. These are hard-luck people, the sort who never win. But far from mocking or sentimentalizing them, the play's gentle humor seems to bestow forgiveness on everyone. It's as though Odets wants to celebrate the dreamer, to remind us that even though dreams do not always come true, they are worth pursuing.
Everything works in this production. The set (designed by Henry May, lights by Kate Boyd), which includes a partial view of adjacent rooms, is a triumphant use of the Berkeley City Club's restrictive space. As an acting ensemble, the Aurora company gives a beautifully balanced performance. Howard Swain is a remarkable Ben, infusing that character's weakness with a yearning that becomes all the more tragic for its ambitions. As Belle, Amy Potozkin humanizes a woman who might tactfully be referred to as “difficult.” Nancy Carlin is entrancing, funny, vulnerable, and ultimately persuasive as the tenaciously romantic Cleo. As Dr. Cooper, Paul Finocchiaro is an eloquent picture of bitter disappointment. And Joe Bellan's Mr. Prince is a benevolent clown whose gentle wisdom makes the play's heartbreaks all the more affecting. Timothy Flanagan as the podiatrist from next door and Robert Wineapple as the womanizing Willie Wax complete the ensemble to great effect.
The New Conservatory Theatre celebrates Gay Pride Month with Paradise Divided, a pair of one-acts devoted to the fragile experience of male bonding. Both plays have moderately lofty ambitions, but neither seems able to shed a prurient voyeurism that undermines dramatic impact considerably. (Though I must say that when the clothes come off, at least it's for plot-related reasons.)
The title play, Paradise Divided (Tom W. Kelly), is a mischievous fable of delayed gratification on a desert island. Written in short scenes, it pits gay-and-proud Peter (Eric Newton) against obsessive-compulsive Steven (David Tillman), who doth protest his straight sexuality way too much. Peter believes in living in the moment; Steven is upset because his water-resistant watch has stopped. The flirtation proceeds and has moments that are genuinely funny. (“What I wouldn't give for an appointment,” yearns Steven.) But overeagerness to represent the “issues” makes the play predictable and, finally, hollow. “You're not the better man,” says Steven. “No, but I'm just as good,” Peter counters stoutly. Oh, that Kelly had resisted the mantle of Gay Playwright.
Boys' Play by Jack Heifner (Vanities) is an overlong exploration of adolescent sexual identity that finally evolves into one boy's crisis and his need to escape a painful and lonely life. Tom (Andrew Nance) is a football jock who has brought Joe (Eric Newton), his newest and only friend, to a secret lakeside site for a camping trip. They spar and joust and call each other names, come close to revealing secret sexual desire for each other, and trade stories, locker-room style. The climax, in which Tom swims out to meet his imagined destiny with extraterrestrials, comes out of the wild blue, so to speak. Perhaps if Heifner cut the more indulgent soft-porn elements, the ending would have its intended effect.
The Wild Party — Joseph Moncure March's 1926 jazz poem — has been reimagined as Balinese shadow theater by puppet master Larry Reed and given an evocative bluesy score by composer/musical director Bruce Forman. Projecting the shadows of masked actors on a giant screen, Reed manages to create depth, movement, and drama while keeping an ultracool, tongue-in-cheek tone. The look is all art deco, and while Reed gives this period piece a distinctive new life, it holds up more as theatrical curiosity than compelling drama.
The Wild Party (which ended its five-performance run at Theatre Artaud on Sunday) is the mournful saga of Queenie (Anne Goldmann) and Burrs (Michael Lopez), denizens of the Jazz Age, whose adventurous (and very alcoholic) lifestyle includes sexual promiscuity, jealousy, and, eventually, murder. What's notable is the way Reed has fused music, motion, and shadow to create a continuously flowing spectacle: candles shimmering as they burn, images doubled to create depth of field, even kaleidoscopic shadows that create the boozy spinning room of the poem. It's an undeniable achievement. Still, I found myself unable to shake a distaste for the subject matter: the oh-so-hip boozy world of the sexual predator.
Rocket to the Moon runs through June 25 at Berkeley City Club; call (510) 843-4822. Paradise Divided runs through June 24 at the New Conservatory Theater in S.F.; call 861-8972.