Theatre Pro Rata's 'Rocket Man' is a trip, but needs more time on Earth

Charles Gorrill

Charles Gorrill

If it's been a while since you've seen the movie, it's easy to forget how persistently melancholy It's a Wonderful Life is.

Rocket Man

The Crane Theater

The angel's intervention shows George Bailey what a difference he's made in Bedford Falls, but it doesn't send him on the world tour he was hoping for. Rocket Man pushes that scenario a step further, suggesting that contentment may prove elusive even for those who do achieve their dreams.

Steven Dietz's 1998 play is being staged by Theatre Pro Rata in a simple, almost austere production directed by Stuart Gates at the Crane Theater. The script is distinctive in its combination of an ambitious structure and its resolve to remain unresolved. If the play's time-bending, universe-hopping scope ultimately dilutes its emotional impact, it does keep your brain churning throughout.

Donny (Matt Wall) is a 43-year-old man whose ex-wife Rita (Rachel Austin) and their 16-year-old daughter Trisha (Anna Beth Baker) are taken aback to discover that he's strewn his possessions — and some of theirs — across his front lawn with a sign reading, "Here's my life. Make an offer." Donny is ready to take a trip, and although he's been studying up on astronomy, his true destination becomes increasingly clear.

After intermission, we find ourselves in an entirely different time-space continuum. Without spoiling any of Dietz's carefully-laid surprises, suffice it to say that the Donny in this universe hasn't just made different choices, he's playing by entirely different rules. Is there any universe in which Donny can find peace?

Dietz packs a lot into this play: too much. A couple of supporting characters don't just fill out Donny's story, they have strange and underdeveloped dilemmas of their own. Louise (Shana Eisenberg) can't sleep, while Buck (Lanny Langston) thinks God is literally telling him to build an ark. There's also some world-building to be accomplished in the alternate universe, and a little dry satire of Clinton-era technology.

Bring a cup of coffee, and your thinking cap. This play takes some effort, in part because of its involved, unusual premise and in part because the dramatic stakes never really ratchet into place. The two acts are in a sense two separate, complementary plays, and when the scenario changes, we need to start nearly from scratch in understanding the characters' choices and their implications.

The cast are committed to this somewhat eccentric material, which involves tweaking their performances as they play different versions of the same characters. The play's most memorable moments come in the second act, as Trisha celebrates a 16th birthday with poignantly variant implications.

The show gets more traction from this Twilight Zone moment than from its romantic triangle or from its extended discussions of Donny's astral-themed landscape designs. The play also hints at unanswered questions of mental health: in many ways, this reads like a play about depression, but Dietz keeps Donny's woes on a theoretical plain, never quite bringing them down to earth.

Ultimately, Rocket Man feels like a two-hour thought experiment. If you're up for that, it's worth considering.