Teeth on Edge: Andrew Bitten on an Overly Grand Production of "The American Chekhov"
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Rocket to the Moon
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. …