Odets, Dreaming Of A Better Life
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Odets, Dreaming Of A Better Life

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

No one summed up the boiling frustrations of struggling New Yorkers during the Great Depression better than Clifford Odets. While Odets languished in obscurity for decades, he was rediscovered about a decade ago, with landmark Broadway revivals of “Awake and Sing!” and “Golden Boy.” Now comes an Off-Broadway production of “Rocket to the Moon,” Odets’ drama about a Jewish dentist whose life and career are at a standstill. It opened this week at the Theatre for St. Clement’s in Midtown, as a production of the Peccadillo Theatre Company, which is devoted to rescuing overlooked plays with high literary merit.

Directed by Dan Wackerman, “Rocket to the Moon” takes place during a hot New York summer. It focuses on Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), whose dental practice is ebbing along with his loveless marriage. When he hires a new assistant, Cleo Singer (Katie McClellan), he falls head over heels for her, only to find himself competing with his father-in-law, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary) for her attentions. Unlike Odets’ earlier plays, “Rocket” was not propelled by an overt political and economic agenda, leading critic (and fellow playwright) George S. Kaufman to query, “Odets, where is thy sting?”

While “Rocket” has not had a major production in New York since its 1938 premiere, it was revived by New Haven’s Long Wharf in 2006 and by the National Theatre in London in 2011. It was also filmed for Public Television’s “American Playhouse” in 1986, starring John Malkovich, Judy Davis and Eli Wallach.

In an interview, Wackerman told The Jewish Week that the play presents “various incarnations of love and self fulfilment,” with “rhapsodic moments,” characteristic of Odets’ writing, in which characters dream of a better life. While the director conceded that Odets’ “elevated, lyric, poetic language can be intimidating,” he noted that it “springs to life if played properly — it smells like life.”

The playwright’s son, Walt Whitman Odets, a well-known psychologist in Berkeley, Calif., told The Jewish Week that he is especially enamored of “Rocket,” because it is “not burdened by politics, but purely humanistic.” One of his father’s favorite expressions, he recalled, was “Rock the boat,” which meant, his son inferred, “Live expansively. Don’t be conciliatory or ingratiating, and don’t sell out.”

His father’s being compelled in 1952 to “name names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee was, Walt Odets said, “extraordinarily painful” for the playwright; indeed, it was so destabilizing that his career never recovered. “I named my son after America’s greatest poet,” he wrote indignantly, “so how can they tell me how to be an American?”

“Rocket to the Moon,” which is now in previews, opens on Feb. 23 and runs through March 28 at the Theatre at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th St. For tickets, $25-$100, call OvationTix at (212) 352-3101 or visit ovationtix.com.

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