Rocket to the Moon

An overly grand production of "the American Chekhov".

Surgeons are the swashbuckling and scalpel-waving heroes of medical fiction - dentists not so much. Although Martin Amis and John Updike have both written with painful honesty about teeth, as has the journalist William Leith, and although toothache vies with heartache in Vronsky after the suicide of Anna Karenina, dentists rarely get their literary due. An exception would be the hero of Frank Norris's 1899 novel, McTeague, who ends up a destitute murderer. My point may be that if you are going to build a work of art around a dentist - a job that, for some reason, translates from life into fiction somewhat risibly - he had better be a pretty sensational dentist.

One of the problems with Clifford Odets's Rocket to the Moon, a play from the 1930s almost as forgotten as McTeague the novel, is that its hero, the New York dentist Ben Stark, is far from exceptional. He presides over a business that is notable in the play's two and a half hours for its almost complete lack of customers, and he lacks the drive to move it uptown. In this dream, which would be financed by his father-in-law, he is obstructed by his wife, who hates her father. Belle (Keeley Hawes), at the start of Act I, is a harridan, but not such a harridan she could not be stood up to. But Ben, although a man of words, has no idea how to fight with them. As Ben, Joseph Millson is bland - blander, surely, than even Odets intended. Like the Cheshire Cat in Alice, when he leaves the stage all that lingers in the memory is - appropriately enough - his perfect, toothsome grin.

Ben needs not so much a rocket to the moon, as one up his backside. It arrives in the form of Cleo Singer, a simple secretary who could be the personification of Freud's pleasure principle. Young, comely and with the arrogance of both youth and comeliness, she takes many liberties, not only with Ben - whom she addresses by his first name - but with the truth, elaborating a grand family background for herself that even she cannot expect anyone to believe.

Cleo is also extremely badly educated, if not very stupid. When Stark quotes a Shakespeare sonnet to her, she exclaims: "Do you know something? I can't read Shakespeare - the type is too small." Faced with a clever but unsympathetic wife at home, and a virtually non-existent business to run at work, Ben falls for her.

Unfortunately so does everyone else: Stark's one visible client, the committed bachelor and impresario Willy Wax (Tim Steed bringing energy and comedy to a small part); and
Mr Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), Belle's dim­inutive but otherwise larger-than-life father. Woodeson steals the scenes he gets, bringing the greasepaint of vaudeville to the stage.

He is a fast-talking professional cynic, a cut-price Groucho Marx with a wisecrack for every occasion. What he sees in Cleo is pretty obvious: pulchritude and a Pygmalion to mould. For Stark, the attraction is meant to be more philosophical. For all her ignorance, Cleo knows there is more to life than a dental surgery. "It's too late getting to play at life. I want to live it. Something has to feel real to me . . . I'm looking for a whole full world." Yup, there is a world outside dentistry. Sadly - and despite a voice that could clear drains I do not blame Jessica Raine who plays her for this - the true explanation for Ben's desire seems simple boredom.

It is somewhat contagious in Angus Jackson's leisurely production. After a somewhat inaudible start, Hawes (making her stage debut) eventually brings depth and pathos to Belle, and by the final act we do care a bit about whom Cleo will choose and for Stark's dilemma. But although Anthony Ward has created a beautiful set reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting, the characters struggle to fill it. So does the plot. Like so many American mouths, it needs filling. Rather than opening wide the Lyttelton for this odd revival, the American Chekhov might have worked better in a studio space. l

Rocket to the Moon
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, GOD Special