Clifford Odets is to me the Steinbeck of American theatre – powerful in his description of the American Depression, warmheated toward the common man, optimistic in his belief in humanity’s underlying good nature. The first play I saw by him (Waiting for Lefty at Theater Schmeater) sold me on its mix of realistic dialogue leavened with moments of gorgeous poetry on the topic of the human soul.
So I was very pleased to see another Odets play being staged at the National this season. As usual I avoided any publicity to keep it all a surprise, though I peeked enough to see that it was set in a dentist’s office in New York City in 1938 (in the depths of the Depression). The curtain opened on a stunningly realistic set, complete with high ceilings, two sub-rooms in the office, a view across the street, a long hallway with doors to all the other offices mentioned in the play, and a fully outfitted surgery. For the dental phobic, I promise you that all but one scene takes place in the waiting room, though having the curtain come up on act two with the sound of drilling jangled my nerves. Eek!
The story … well, I liked having it be a surprise for me, so I don’t want to say too much. Ben Stark (Joseph Millson) is a kind-hearted dentist of about 40 who is in a childless marriage with Belle (Keeley Hawes). Belle is very conservative about money, while Stark is checked out from life. His father-in-law, Mr Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), bullies Stark just as much as his daughter does, while Cleo (Jessica Raine), bounces around the office being a cute muppet and telling stories about her very wealthy family that seem hard to believe from someone who can barely manage a grammatically correct sentence.
The central issue of this play is whether or not Dr. Stark is going to break out of the walls he’s created for his life (and his potential) and do something with himself, or whether the big brick walls of social expectations are going to keep him put. He has a lot of people pushing and pulling him both ways, so it is a real question just where this play is going to end up. And much as in Strindberg, this play makes it clear that in order for people to really fuck each other up, there’s nothing like a twenty year marriage; parents, by comparison, are far more escapable.
Accepting that the plot is good, we are left with the acting. I think Woodeson was a complete star, as arrogant and pushy and hot and cold as his character needed, over the top and 100% terrifying. Hawes, meanwhile, had her own hot and cold to believe with and was genuine enough for her terror at a change in her own life to come through sympathetically rather than as her being manipulative. Millson, though, was just a bit too soft with his character; I think he needed not to cave in on himself and start disappearing. Raine, however, was so over the top that I found her distracting. She was an actress doing a character on the stage, and while she got the primping and bouncing and sauntering fine, there was just too much of it. And her qaccent was so heavy and puton that she pushed the words out of her mouth like she was spitting out peas. It was just too much for me, was in the balcony and it felt like she was sitting in my lap!
Overall, however, I found this a fine production that overcame its first act slump to deliver a ripe reward – a play in which people and their conflicts, internal and external, were examined with painful accuracy.