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A CurtainUp Review
Rocket to the Moon

By Jana J. Monji

The Pacific Resident Theatre and the West Coast Jewish Theatre's production of Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon is a sensitive, well-acted interpretation. Set in the sweltering heat the 1938 summer, it centers on a dentist, Ben Stark (Michael Bryan French) who is in search of something to make his life worthwhile.

Although he graduated first in his class, Ben is a man beaten back by life and his wife Belle (Melissa Weber Bales) who still mourns for the child that was stillborn three years ago and nurtures a grudge towards the father who made her late mother's life hell. That father The Pacific Resident Theatre and the West Coast Jewish Theatre's production of Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon is a sensitive, well-acted interpretation at the Pacific Resident Theatre's main stage in Venice Beach.

In the sweltering heat the 1938 summer, a dentist, Ben Stark (Michael Bryan French) is a man in search of something to make his life worthwhile. Although he graduated first in his class, Ben is a man beaten back by life and by a wife, Belle (Melissa Weber Bales), who mourns for her stillborn child that died three years ago. She also nurtures a grudge against her father (Richard Fancy)for making her deceased mother's life hell. It is this distained father -- a stylishly dressed sly dog, played by Fancy with a joking tone to cover an angry edge -- who seeks to do Ben a favor by setting him up in a high-rent area. Though hard to ignore, Belle resists his plan, pointing out that most of Ben's loyal clients won't follow him to a new neighborhood.

Ben has additional worries. Patients are few during the summer slump and Phil Cooper (Vince Melocchi) with whom he shares the office hasn't paid his share of the rent for several months. Though Ben pretends this doesn't bother him, Belle doesn't hide the fact that it does indeed bother her.

Entering the fray we have Cleo Singer (Dana Dewes), a new secretary who is full of stories of a wonderful life and not really needing this job because her family is so well off. Played with a charming innocence that covers a certain hard-knocks acquired inner strength by Dewes, this young girl becomes the center of attention -- courted by Ben, Mr. Prince and Willy Wax (Scott Conte), a successful choreographer. Why Cleo chooses to work in this small office is clear only to the podiatrist down the hall (Choppy Guillotte). While Cleo's motivation is to lure Ben into an affair, Ms. Dewes never allows her character to come off as a schemer but retains a sense of the naivete of a lost girl looking for a better life.

Director De Santos lets the drama unfold at a languid pace, yet the finely tuned performances make the 3 hours seem shorter. French's Ben falls unwillingly into the affair, but not out of lust or in an attempt to regain his lost youth but a sense of fatherly protectiveness. Mr. Fancy makes Mr. Prince, Belle's father, sympathetic. He may be willing to buy what he wants with a wretchedly cynical pragmatic view but we also see a lonely old man who was bitterly unhappy in his marriage.

As the two people clear-eyed enough to perceive Cleo's motives, Bales' Belle isn't a nag, but a woman heart-broken by her childlessness while Guillotte's Frenchy is a joker hiding his practicality and centered morality.

From the detailed set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz to the costume design by Audrey Eisner to the ensemble acting and direction, this is a first-rate rpduction. It doesn't have to be an unforgettable thrill to enable you to remember the thrill of living.

Playwright: Clifford Odets
Director: Elina de Santos
Cast: Michael Bryan French (Ben Stark, DDS), Melissa Weber Bales (Belle Stark), Dana Dewes (Cleo Singer), Vince Melocchi (Phil Cooper, DDS), Richard Fancy (Mr. Prince), Choppy Guillotte (Frenchy), Scott Conte (Willy Wax).
Set Design: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Costume Design: Audrey Eisner
Sound Design: Kevin Rahn
Running time: 3 hours with two intermissions
Rocket to the Moon, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice Beach. (310) 822-8392.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. -- to 8/01/04 -- extended to 8/25/04 www.pacificresidenttheatre.com
Reviewed by Jana J. Monji on June 13, 2004.
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