Throughout his career Clifford Odets was overshadowed by Arthur Miller. Nowadays, his plays tend to be classified on a topsy-turvy scale beginning with the least completely forgotten. One of the lesser forgotten, A Rocket to the Moon, is a flawed, steamy, bourgeois melodrama.
At first it seems crammed with gestures that don’t quite gel. The setting, a New York dental practice, seems to symbolise the American dream with the handbrake on. The characters’ names hint at their function. Belle is a flouncing beauty, Mr Prince is jolly rich, Willy Wax is a slippery, priapic seducer. There’s an earnest deadbeat dentist, Ben Stark, whose name vividly evokes the lead in his boots. Stark’s new assistant, Cleo, shimmers with unspoken eroticism which, by a handy coincidence, finds its counterpoint in the stifling summer weather. Phew, boys, it’s get’n kinda hot’n here. Odets is never quite that blunt but he comes close.
The play develops into a love joust between the decent, timid Ben and the maverick Mr Prince, who wants to woo Cleo with luxury and riches. In a rhetorical tour de force he invites her to take him on for 20 years and, after he’s dead and gone — ‘cremate me, throw me away!’ — to inherit his fortune and live out a magnificent widowhood as ‘a great woman, scattering riches’. It’s a terrific speech. Money was never so romantic and materialism never so seductive.
Nicholas Woodeson invests the declaration with biblical potency that makes it seem like one of the pinnacles of American oratory. But it’s a solitary highlight in a play that struggles to overcome a more basic failing. Odets’s characters, alas, are a gang of good-for-nothing pests. Joseph Millson can’t bring any comic warmth to the strained, handsome weakling Ben (although on his day Millson is one of the theatre’s sprightliest comic talents).