Love and Rockets

Rocket to the Moon, an old play by a once Very Important but now Mostly Overlooked American dramatist, Clifford Odets, reeks with love unrequited, awkward and passionate. Which is to say, it's real love.

Love is fickle, people like to say, and among the definitions you'll find when you look up “fickle” in the dictionary is “unstable.” There's a certain degree of mental instability inherent in any form of love—especially the gut-wrenching, mind-bending electrical current that buzzes between two people. The mad, passionate frenzy to be with that person —and the games and head trips and fears and fantasies that go along with it—are enough to make the coolest cat crazy.

The characters in Rocket to the Moon, which is receiving a remarkably grown-up production by the Hunger Artists Theater Company, provide an emphatic example. They're in love—and going nuts.

Love makes protagonist Ben Stark, a bland and practical dentist, willing to throw his life away. Love turns Stark's father-in-law, Mr. Prince, a doddering, charming codger, into a veritable Valentino. It turns Stark's wife, Belle, inside-out to the point of a nervous breakdown. The only character that love doesn't drive crazy is the object of all this desire and heartache: Cleo Singer, a starry-eyed innocent hired on as a secretary, whose biggest crime is having the courage to fall in love—disrupting a lot of lives in the process.

Rocket to the Moonis not one of Odets' Big Plays. And he wrote several Big Plays. Odets was the leading literary force behind the Depression-era Group Theater. This was the noblest and most hallowed experiment in American theater history; it basically exploded the Method upon American acting, a detonation that continues to reverberate through universities and acting schools today. Politically fueled from the start, the Group Theater was unashamedly Left-wing, and Odets was its company playwright.

But unlike the incendiary strikers in Waiting for Leftyand the condemnation of material success found in Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moonis a fairly neutered play. Here, Odets tries to map the complexities of the human heart rather than diagram a social drama or dabble in agitprop.

It's also a sadly fatalistic play. Everyone in the audience knows exactly what decision should be made by the loving couple at the play's center. But those same people know, deep down, what decision will be made. The play emphasizes that some straw cannot be made into bricks.

What's most remarkable about this production is that it works. This is a fairly wordy, slow-moving play in which a whole lot doesn't happen. But director Eric Person and his very capable cast transform this rather sleepy affair into a tense, urgently moving piece. And that's surprising, in that the Hunger Artists have never broached such a straight, old-school play in such a straight, old-school fashion. Until now, their reputation is for bastardizing standard classics like last year's uproarious White Trash Privit Livesor adapting such literary works as Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Here they play it straight, and it works. Person elicits strong performances from everyone, including Hunger Artists newcomers Laura Hinsberger (a remarkably vibrant and complicated Cleo) and Sid Wilner (a perfectly cast and perfectly brilliant Mr. Prince). Damon Hill and Trevor Murphy supply the right blend of comic relief and quiet desperation as fellow doctors, and Colleen Wainwright is a sublimely fragile Belle Stark.

In the lead role of Ben Stark, Hunger Artists mainstay Mark Coyan delivers one of his strongest performances to date. One of the finest young actors on the local circuit, Coyan clearly relishes flamboyant, physically complicated roles. Here, he has to portray a man with very little character, a scared little man whose dreams have wilted and whose future seems dry as the inside of a stone. In short, Coyan has to work against the very personality that he infuses into so many of his characters. And he does a splendid job. His character arc is a marvel to watch, and he even manages to imbue a slight strain of optimism into the end of this very sad play. Ben Stark may never fly his rocket to the moon, but at the very least, we've all felt he had a chance to get there—and maybe, if he keeps his eyes on the stars, he'll get another chance someday.

Rocket to the Moon at the Hunger Artists Theater, 204 E. 4th St., Santa Ana, (714) 547-9100. Fri.-Sun., 8:30 p.m. $12.

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