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I’ve been devoting a lot of thought lately as to whether marriage is possible. Not the act or the sacrament of marriage, but the kind of marriage that doesn’t simply trickle, in time, into a really close friendshipthe kind of marriage in which passion prevails and the seven-year itch is scratched by one’s partner. Bridal registries and engagement parties and hopeful New York Times wedding announcements notwithstanding, America’s 43 percent divorce rate is a testament to the fact that not every couple weathers the storm and stress of civil union like Crate and Barrel, Williams and Sonoma, or Dean and DeLuca.
Clifford Odets’ 1938 Rocket to the Moon wades thoughtfully through the flotsam and jetsam of shared lifein this case, the ho-hum marriage of Lower East Side dentist-doormat Dr. Ben Stark (Howard Shalwitz) to the controlling yet candid Belle (Amy McWilliams). At first blush, Odets’ wedding picture is fairly bleak, but his unyielding moral stance and careful distillation of centuries of wisdom about life and relationships infuse the play with romantic truths so timeless that Odets might be said to approximate a Jewish Kahlil Gibran. But in this Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company/Theater J’s production, directed by Grover Gardner, Odets sounds more like a Jewish grandma trapped in a fortune-cookie factory.
On the three-year anniversary of the birth of their stillborn son, Belle and Ben’s marital blip arrives in the form of Ben’s new secretary/ hygienist, a beautiful aspiring dancer named Cleo Singer (Laura Heisler). Alternately self-possessed and naive, articulate and obtuse, the 20-year-old Cleo is looking for love in all the wrong places, and Ben’s dental office happens to be where she spends most of her time. Belle, the archetypical shrew-wife, refuses to play the fool, immediately pegging her husband’s dental floozy for what she really is. But it’s too late: Cleo fells every man in her path with a Betty Boop roll of the eyes, some charmingly pre-pubescent notions of sex appeal, and her unflagging desire to see herself reflected in the faces of the men she encounters. And Ben, who’s lost sight of himself in the shadow of his dominating wife, is all too willing to assist in Cleo’s journey of self-discovery.
The sometimes forced rhythms of Odets’ wordplay lend a whiff of contrivance to the otherwise familiar familial and work relationships; but the cast’s uniformly overplayed, musical-theater acting style is the true distraction from the play’s emotional relevance. Shalwitz, as Ben, goes through the motions as Belle’s “shepherd dog,” as though he could easily have been the new cuckold on the block if he hadn’t himself assumed the role of adulterer. The eminently competent McWilliams, as Belle (who is not on stage nearly enough), is forced to scale the production’s emotional heights solo. The always entertaining KenYatta Rogers (as big-shot dance director Willy Wax) is caught between a character and a caricature. Admittedly, the script is laden with vaudevillian zingers (“A man’d be a mad idealist to want a honeymoon forever.” “No, he’d be a woman”), but too many of the scenes between Ben and Cleo smack of Guys and Dolls and Anything Goesnot the production Woolly Mammoth and Theater J are advertising as “blisteringly real…with tremendous dramatic punch.”
One of the play’s most objectively dramatic momentswhen Ben’s office mate, Dr. Phil Cooper (Tony Tsendeas), raises his arm to strike Cleobarely registers on the visage of Shalwitz’s Ben, whose motions to restrain Cooper are more like a neatly choreographed Merce Cunningham move than an earnest attempt to protect the woman he loves from imminent physical harm.
The one character who seems truly at home in Gardner’s production, Tsendeas’ Cooper, is also the only character permitted to verbally punctuate his jokes with the ba-doom tschhh that was constantly cuing up in my head at inappropriate moments of dialogue.
With so many doors opening and closing, even the most supposedly tense scenes bear the tincture of Three’s Company-style misunderstanding. But somehow, somewhere between the schtick and the sorrow, Odets’ marital insights shine through: namely, that a spouse’s duty is to help his/her partner experience all that life has to offer, not clip wings, stack decks, mince words, or hedge bets. CP