Rocket To The Moon by the Gremlin Theatre, performing at the New Century Theatre

Peter Christian Hansen and Jane Froiland in Rocket To The Moon. Photo by Aaron Fenster.

Peter Christian Hansen and Jane Froiland in Rocket To The Moon. Photo by Aaron Fenster.

Once a much bally-hoo’d darling of the New York theater – the Group Theatre made its reputation (or at least its money) producing his work in the 1930s – playwright Clifford Odets‘s work seldom finds its way onto contemporary stages. Perhaps this is because his plays are cast heavy and dated (being too much about Depression life). Moreover, Odets voluntarily entered the belly of the great beast (Hollywood) and never really emerged with his artistic spirit intact. His performance before the vile and evil HUAC Committee left much, in the eyes of observers, to be desired. Odets died in 1963, aged 57. Since then, interest in his stage work has waned.

Still, Odets’s plays produce real pleasure. Characters are rich, dialogue is deft and witty, the plays are chockful of laugh-out-loud comedy. Genuine passion makes itself felt throughout. Awake and Sing! (don’t forget the exclamation point), about an impoverished Jewish family in the Bronx, is Odets’s acknowledged masterwork; productions of Awake And Sing! emerge with increasing frequency. His Waiting For Lefty is oft-anthologized but seldom produced. Other plays, well, they go largely begging. Certainly in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Until now. The plucky, never-say-die Gremlin Theatre serves up a lovely production of Odets’s Rocket To The Moon (Gremlin Theatre, through June 1). Evicted from its home on University Avenue – the !@#$%& light-rail – Gremlin has surfaced in various venues and now performs in the exceedingly pleasant New Century Theatre in downtown Minneapolis.

The Gremlin offers a slightly bowdlerized (they have eliminated a character) Rocket. Still, clunky and somewhat longish though it is, Odets’s drama, about love and passion, heat and ambition, stultifying marriage vs. free-spiritedness doesn’t fail to move. Ben Stark, DDS, struggles to keep his office going in the face of a hot business-less summer and, of course, the Depression. He refuses to evict his non-rent paying tenant, refuses to replace his louche and luscious assistant. Cleo Singer, with Belle, his henpecky wife. Ben’s stock market astute father-in-law Mr. Prince visits regularly.  Like everyone in this play, especially Ben, Prince is madly in love with Cleo, one of a great playwright’s great creations.

So: who will the lively Cleo choose? The rich Mr. Prince? The successful choreographer Willy Wax? Ben himself? Naturally, I’m not going to reveal the play’s affecting ending.

The Gremlin’s production of Rocket To The Moon is wonderful. Under the sure hand of director Ellen Fenster, there isn’t a clunker performance in the show.

Peter Christian Hansen (also the Gremlin’s artistic director and primary energy-source) does marvelous work in the difficult role of Ben Stark. Hansen/Stark frets, paces, drinks endless shaky cups of cooler water, undergoes compelling paroxysms of indecision. Yet, at the same time, he burns with passion, with ambition, with (absolutely believable) love for Cleo. He turns his wife, played with arch and proper poise by Daisy Macklin Skarning, into a villain (and this is to Skarning, and the play’s, great benefit).

The ever-delightful Craig Johnson plays Mr. Prince: elegant, self-possessed, refusing absolutely to go gentle in that good night. Every time he walks onstage, the play’s energy sky-rockets. Wonderful.

And then there is the uber-marvelous Jane Froiland as Cleo Singer. Fresh and lovely, charming and effervescent, honest and forthright (despite her initial tendency to tell tall tales) in her relentless pursuit of a better life, one understands completely the passion the characters in this play feel for her. Froiland has been circling about Twin Cities theater scene for some time. It’s time to see her in more prominent roles. I hope folks from the flying G and CTC come to this show.

Here’s your chance to see the seldom-produced work of a great American writer. Clifford Odets deserves a rekindling of interest; let’s hope this production is a start.

For more info about John Olive, please visit his (recently updated) website.

3 comments for “Rocket To The Moon by the Gremlin Theatre, performing at the New Century Theatre

  1. May 21, 2014 at 10:16 am

    I stand corrected. However, I’ll leave the original misstatement, so that the comments will make sense.

  2. Maxwell Collyard
    May 20, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    From Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years: “At first preview the audience was cold and the author puzzled.” “The third act was too long; it was cut ten minutes.” This is where the mysterious A SALESMAN was likely to have appeared. Due to poor reception, the role may have been cut entirely before opening. The other possibility is he was an addition by Clurman appearing in act 2 after Wax’s entrance considering the cast list is by speech order. As Craig said, the 1939 published text contains no mention of him. Poor William Challee.

  3. Craig Johnson
    May 20, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Thanks so much, John! Appreciate the support and insights. FYI–We’re using the published text, which doesn’t include the salesman from the original production (Odets must have cut that).

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