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!
To use the play's astronomical frame of reference, Louise, Buck, Rita, and Trisha all orbit around Donny like lesser moons around a distant planet. He is the center of his own universe, and no one else really makes a dent in his consciousness. We learn that Donny has given up a successful career designing landscapes in the attic office. His specialty was designs in which formations of plants on the ground mirror constellations of stars above. At one site trees were planted in the shape of Orion, and so on.
Never mind whether there's actually a market for this stuff. The reason Donny gives for his loss of interest in work is an ambiguous explanation about the need to be transported and the disappointment he feels when he has to return, as it were, to mundane day-to-day existence. Clinical depression is never mentioned as an underlying source for Donny's malaise. Nor does financial support of his family become a factor in his decision to put away his drawing pencils. But one day he holes himself up in the attic, sits under the skylight in an old recliner, and gets ready to watch the night sky and commit the explosive act that will transport him out of this world.
How does he turn back time? When Trisha arrives, just as he's locking himself up in his retreat, Donny mentions something called "Hamlet's salt mill," a creaky legend that has nothing to do with Shakespeare's Hamlet and postulates that, in certain circumstances, time can be made to go backward. I won't give anything away by reporting that Donny apparently makes this idea work. The big mystery isn't how this guy moves into his parallel universe but why. It's difficult to care about a man whose dissatisfaction is tethered to something we can't understand. I never knew what was at stake for him. Why does Donny, having moved into a reality that's the mirror image of the one he left, still make the same inexplicable life choice he did in the first universe?
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Dietz, a playwright with a number of respectable productions under his belt (his two best-known plays are God's Country and the children's drama Still Life With Iris), never provides satisfactory answers to these issues. Oddly enough, given that the nature of time is one of Dietz's themes, he hasn't really given Donny a past. Oh, he provides some details, such as Donny's favorite record album and the kind of car he drives. But we don't know nearly enough to care about this man, who's reached a critical juncture in his life. Even if we did, I'm not sure we'd be patient with the speeches Dietz puts in his characters' mouths. "Travel further. Dig deeper. Risk more," Trisha patly advises her elders.
A more interesting life juncture is that of Cinilia, the actress playing Trisha, who is a West Palm beach native and a high-school sophomore making her professional debut. She's an appealing actress and quite talented, able to portray an ordinary 16-year-old girl and her parallel-universe counterpart, a 16-year-old who's actually older than her parents. Also new to Florida Stage is Morsey, who gives a warm and engaging performance as Rita. Here's hoping we see more of both actresses soon. The rest of the cast -- Leonard, Burns, and Stephens -- are Florida Stage alumni who deliver thoughtful, well-crafted performances.
In addition the Florida Stage production is one of the loveliest I've seen. Richard Crowell's well-appointed set and lighting design -- which, at one point, puts an entire galaxy of stars on the back wall and ceiling of the theater -- and David Pair's sound design give Rocket Man a look and feel that, while it can't take Donny into the stratosphere he needs to reach to be in a better play, still provide an atmosphere that's not a bad place in which to spend time.
Written by Steven Dietz. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Starring Dan Leonard, Traber Burns, Julie Cinilia, Sara Morsey, and Karen Stephens. Through January 17. Florida Stage, Plaza Del Mar, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 800-514-3837.