The rocket of Clifford Odets' play takes an obsessive orbit that never even gets the moon in its sights. Shooting at the romantic orb is Ben Stark (Michael Bryan French), a dentist of small spirit, badly frayed at the edges by an emasculating wife, an idiosyncratic father-in-law, a dipso associate, lagging business, and dreams deferred. He is transfixed by the possibility of deconstructing the whole shaky armature in dreams of his tantalizing secretary, Cleo (Dana Dewes). Naively aggressive, in love with love, Cleo tangles in her thrall not only the witless dentist but all of the above.
There's little action in the drama, and no certain resolution, but there are several stories unfolding on the emotional stage of the conflicted characters. As Ben's father-in-law who also desires Cleo, Richard Fancy delivers his role with a bravura that, although it suits Odets' stylistic lyricism, sucks up much of the available air. By contrast, French, spineless as the beleaguered dentist, fades into the woodwork to the point that his dilemma becomes a diminishing subplot. As Frenchy, wandering chiropodist and constant drop-in, Choppy Guillotte mangles the language in an unplaceable accent, so we wonder why he's there. Melissa Weber Bales does justice to the archetypal bitter wife, a role written, incidentally, during Odets' divorce. Scott Conte, as Willy Wax, a sleazy entrepreneur anxious to get into Cleo's corner, avoids the obvious stereotype. Vince Melocchi manages a nicely sweaty loser as Stark's delinquent tenant and associate. Dewes, playing a mixed-up girl with a distant relationship with honesty, is blithe and good and more than a bit silly, but she comes through with a delicious pre-curtain speech that summarizes every character's emotional turmoil, tidily wrapping up all the wounded subplots.
While high-stepping over sacred cows, the dramaturgy here prevents this from being Odets' best play. Director Elina de Santos, a supreme artist, has her hands tied by all the separate stories, which share the themes of love, desire, and loneliness, though each is a set piece with its own arc, diffusing any overall focus.
"Rocket to the Moon," presented by Pacific Resident Theatre and West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. May 29-Aug. 1. $20-23.50. (310) 822-8392.