Star-Crossed Druthers

In the second half of Steve Dietz's new play, Rocket Man, time moves backward in an enchanting fashion. The elderly are the newest people on Earth. Teenagers, veterans by comparison, choose the parents who will care for them as they grow younger and more dependent. And on one character's sweet-16 birthday, she gives up the keys to the car and imbibes her last taste of alcohol.

Rocket Man takes place in a parallel universe, one in which the definition of time mirrors our own and also mocks it. We enter this place courtesy of Donny, a burned-out landscape designer who, by invoking an obscure pseudoscientific legend, travels from the world as we know it to a place where the clock moves in the opposite direction. When he arrives Donny has no memory of his former life. His daughter asks him to imagine a world where couples set off for their honeymoon right after the wedding, rather than after counting down decades of marriage together. But he can't take it in. "You mean, before they know each other?" he exclaims.

What Donny really can't grasp is how people would function in a world in which their lives might end at any time. In his new universe, people know they will cease to exist when they reach their "birth" date. "How do they know how much time they have?" he wonders of the other world. That question and its obvious answer (that we don't know) form the heart of Dietz's play. But despite its engaging depiction of a new reality, the drama never becomes more than a superficial inquiry into one of life's most overstated truisms. Rocket Man's message is that we should use well the time we do have. Maybe in the hands of a better playwright this stultifying wisdom might rise above sentimentality, but I doubt it. In this case the drama, directed at the Florida Stage by accomplished director-in-residence Benny Sato Ambush, is getting a production that's smarter than the play.

Rocket Man premiered earlier this year at the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson. The current production is the second of four Florida premieres that make up the Florida Stage season. (The Adjustment, by Michael Folie, ran last month. Doug Wright's Quills is next up, in January.) A playwright could hardly ask for a better company with which to try out a new play, but it's Florida Stage that fares best, putting on a crackerjack show in the service of a work that's ultimately not very interesting. I came away impressed that the cast -- in particular Dan Leonard, who plays Donny with a depth and richness of texture that's not in the script -- had pulled performances virtually out of thin air.

Still, even a failure -- particularly a failure that has the inventive elements that exist in Rocket Man -- is worth dissecting in order to figure out what makes some plays work and others fall flat. Can a story propel itself on a time-travel gimmick alone? Or does it need something more -- complex characters, for example -- to allow us to invest in its emotional stakes? Like many an ambitious but failed play before it, Rocket Man is not rooted in an authentic main character. Rather, Donny seems to exist to fulfill the playwright's well-wrought symbolism, not to mention the delicately designed structure of the play that, as it happens, finds a landscape designer longing for closer connection with the sky. A nice flourish, but what does it mean?

Rocket Man begins by introducing us to Donny just as he is throwing out the clutter of his life. The drama is set almost entirely in his attic, although his neighbor Buck (Traber Burns) arrives early on and reports that, out on the lawn below, Donny has put his household effects up for sale with a sign that reads: "This is my life. Make me an offer." Such easy disposals don't go over well with Trisha (Julie Cinilia), Donny's 16-year-old daughter. She shows up to rescue the detritus of her childhood -- old toys, an Easter basket -- from the yard sale. Nor does it please Rita (Sara Morsey), Donny's ex-wife who chides him that he's forgotten Trisha's birthday.

In fact Donny thinks Trisha's birthday is still in the future. In one of the many studied references to the passage of days and weeks, he tells Buck, "Time is getting away from me." Buck may buy this malarkey, but to the rest of us Donny seems a schmuck who just can't remember his daughter's birthday. After committing this gaffe, Donny -- in what seems like a conciliatory gesture but is actually a portent of his plan to leave the world behind -- gives Trisha the keys to his car.

The third woman in Donny's life is Louise (Karen Stephens), a friend who's less than a romantic interest but more than a casual acquaintance. How she comes to be napping in Donny's attic is not satisfactorily explained, but because she's a seminarian, Louise is given the opportunity to inject the topic of God into the dialogue. And if that weren't heavy enough, Buck confesses to Louise that recently he has been hearing heavenly voices. God, it seems, wants him to build... an ark!

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