ROCKET TO THE MOON
FASHIONS FOR MEN
It’s probably unwise to generalize, but I do tend to pull back a bit at the description “lost masterpiece,” as regards plays by major American dramatists, because unless the thing was truly somehow misplaced, what’s really meant is infrequently if ever produced since its initial debut.
And there’s usually sound reason.
What causes a such a play to slip out of the repertoire—or never quite enter it—tends to be either or both of these two factors: (1) For whatever reason(s)—it’ll differ from play to play—it’s just not very good. Even Shakespeare didn’t knock it out of the park all the time (no Summer outdoor-theatre pun intended), which is why his œvre contains an entire category of “problem plays”—far less often produced, because the brilliance of individual set-pieces still doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative that can be solved by even the most thoughtful or innovative reinterpretation. (2) The social mores of the play’s debut era, often also incorporating the author’s at-the-time limited (or fanciful) understanding of behavioral psychology on a clinical level, have since become unsustainable. And ironically, they don’t render the play a “period piece” but rather an antique artifact, rather like a Victrola: it has its historical fascinations, but you don’t want to be listening to your music on it.
There are those who will disagree, but by my lights, Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odets, currently being revived by the Pecadillo Theatre Company, is a prime example. Set in 1938, its locale is a suite of dental offices in a NYC office building. Ben Stark DDS (Ned Eisenberg) has his financial and business life under scrutiny by his wife Belle (Marilyn Mataresse), begging him not to accept the gift of money for a new office and a new location being offered by her father, from whom she is estranged—ironically, it’s Ben he’ll talk to—because she doesn’t believe anything he gives will come without strings. (The father, Mr. Prince, is played by Jonathan Hadary. He turns out to be a man of some experience and wisdom, and still something of a roué, and we’ll meet him just a bit later.) Almost marginalized in the office is Ben’s new assistant, Cleo (Katie McClellan), on the verge of 20, with a pronounced Noo Yawk accent and a less developed education. When we meet her, she seems of limited intelligence and competence.
And yet…and yet…it is she who will be the catalyst for so much of what will happen in the play. For she will start to fall in love with Ben and he with her, and oh what a midlife crisis does then ensue.
The problem is, Cleo doesn’t follow a believable psychological profile. She’s not a golddigger, but she lies about her past; she’s naive in the ways of the world yet in command of her feminine wiles; she has all the intuition of a red brick, yet she can formulate a wise philosophy…and etc. And that’s because Cleo is something of a male fantasy—in a mild way (because the affair is purely emotional; if the text is to be believed, actual sex never takes place, just a lot of dating and kissing). She’s a composite of too many conflicting things and really exists (narratively speaking) only to be a trigger.
Not that there aren’t some moments of human truth—there are some memorable set-pieces, particularly the moments of desperation for Ben and his wife, confronting the fork in the road—the anger that hides fear, the raging ambivalence, all that feels plenty real enough—but at the core, the drama feels contrived, and anchored to its own naïveté.
This is exacerbated by director Dan Wackerman’s production, which is technically and emotionally quite sound and grounded, ironically; but in which he has chosen to cast the middle-aged actors to speak for what middle age looks like in 2015; Ned Eisenberg’s Ben is 50 if he’s a day, and so’s his wife. And it makes his fling with Cleo seem unseemly, and a little weird. Whereas if Ben and his wife are, as the play describes them, on the cusp of 40, the dynamic is very different and the threat to Ben’s stability very real. It also makes a difference in relation to the father character, who needs to be both mentor and threat to Ben in other ways; Mr. Hadary seems almost Mr. Eisenberg’s contemporary. (Mr. Hadary also sports this long and slightly incongruous beard that makes him look a bit like a displaced Orthodox rabbi; when Mr. Price ideally needs to be an old guy with some real dash left in him; think Chevalier.) If you want to see the more accurate dynamic in action—particularly instructive if you attend the Pecadillo revival first—go to You Tube and check out the rendition done in 1986 for PBS’s American Playhouse—
and the promotional videos for the 2011 staging by the National Theatre in London.
They don’t make the case for the play being better…just shown off to better advantage.
Might be worth noting before it gets lost again…
It’s a lot easier to “lose” a play by a non-American dramatist of note, because it’s simply, logistically impossible for the theatre culture of one country to keep an active repertoire of all the major plays by all the major dramatists, not to mention translations in fighting trim for English-language production. But the Mint Theatre Company, which makes a specialty of neglected plays, has come up a winner with its current “find”, Fashions for Men, by Hungarian dramatist Ferenc Molnar (in the 1922 Broadway translation by Benjamin Glazer).
I’m loath to describe too much about this romantic comedy of manners; since it isn’t an American repertoire standard, it can still offer much surprise; and since this revival isn’t cast with stars, there’s no expectation, at curtainrise, that one featured character will emerge more prominently than another, thus the dynamics unfold with more sense of discovery than might be apparent if the leads were established above-the-title players. All I will say is that the first and third of its three acts are set in a little men’s/women’s fashion shop in Budapest; that the owner, a too-nice fellow (Joe Delafield) is about to have his forbearance tested by his wife (Annie Purcell) and best salesman (John Tufts); that the shop’s oldest salesman (Jeremy Lawrence) knows and sees all with a quiet, keen observation; and that the shop’s most illustrious customer, a Count (Kurt Rhoads) and least consequential employee, a cashier (Rachel Napoleon) will be the architects of even greater upheaval.
The play’s design elegantly evokes period, locale and, indeed, the fashion of the title in high and low style (sets: Daniel Zimmerman, costumes: Martha Hally) and the cast is uniformly on target.
The only caveat I have is that the evening doesn’t quickly enough establish itself as one of laugh-out-loud comedy; we’re well into the first act before the audience comes to realize they have permission to laugh loudly and often. Even given the warm up of establishing characters and navigating exposition, I wonder if this was conquerable by director Davis McCallum or if he was hamstrung by the text and/or the translation. But the tone of that first ten or fifteen minutes is something I would continue to scrutinize.
But that aside, Fashions for Men emerges as a tiny treasure in a jewel box setting.
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