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"Rocket Man" is mostly powered by talk.

By Margaret Regan

MARCH 16, 1998:  TWO YEARS AGO Steven Dietz played around with alternate realities in his comedy Private Eyes. That time the alternate realities were theatrical: The audience could never be entirely sure whether a scene was a part of the intricate play-within-the-play, or whether it was the "real" life of his characters. A rollicking piece of stagework, full of collapsing sets and startling turnarounds, the play nonetheless made a serious stab at discussing adultery and free choice.

In his latest Arizona Theatre Company premiere, Dietz takes this interest in parallel lives to a whole new dimension. Rocket Man, which opened last weekend at the Temple of Music and Art, poses tricky philosophical questions about the big choices in life. If we've messed up the life we've been given--if, like the lead character Donny, we've failed at a career and made a mess of fatherhood and marriage--could we somehow launch ourselves into a parallel universe where we've done everything right? Is there another place where we get a second chance?

Donny (Kurt Rhoads) hopes so. At the age of 43, divorced and alone, he's had it with life. He had dreamed of becoming a landscape architect who would reshape the earth using the stars' constellations as patterns; instead he's kept his head to the ground, measuring the earth as a surveyor. Now he wants to join the stars. He's put all the material detritus of his four decades out on the front lawn and posted a sign that says "Here's My Life. Make an Offer." The greedy masses are down there picking over the merchandise, while Donny readies himself up in his attic for his new life. All he has to do is position his recliner underneath the skylight, push a button and catapult himself into that alternate reality beyond the stars.

But Donny hasn't come this far without making some entangling social alliances. Therein lies the rub. He's the father of a 16-year-old, Trisha (Carol Roscoe), for one, and she arrives in the attic to rage that the mementos of her childhood are being picked over by all and sundry in the yard. Donny's release is his daughter's violation. Likewise, neighbor and best bud Buck turns up to proffer his concern about Donny's mental state, though he doesn't mind buying up Donny's rusty saw for a song. Angry ex-wife Rita shows up too, and so does Louise, a dear friend and incipient minister, who might have been Donny's true love if things had turned out differently. None of these can dissuade Donny, however, and Act II takes him to his parallel life.

This strange fantasy investigates some weighty ethical issues. Donny believes he must, finally, follow his heart and depart. "One day in the midst of a man's life the why appears," he declares, and he must answer the why. Buck counters with "You have responsibilities. You don't get to just float away." Mixed into this conundrum about self and selfishness are large questions about faith, represented by the believer, Louise, and some common-sense notions about seizing life's opportunities when they come along.

Rocket Man is a talky play, literally a work of armchair philosophy. Dietz's script can be lyrical, particularly when it grapples with the starry cosmos, but too often the talk gets tedious. Dietz tries to make his tough material palatable by making it stagey--there are lots of entrances and exits--and by lacing it with comedy, often successfully. In the opening monologue, for instance, Donny soliloquizes on the ubiquitous--and useless--pedestrian walk signals of contemporary life. It's a fine, funny piece about our longing to have at least the illusion of control over our lives: If we push the button, we can walk.

The secondary characters are funny eccentrics. Warmly played by Michael Winters, the widower Buck is the most endearing of the play's characters, admitting that he gets his bald head washed at the salon each week so he can regularly feel human touch. Buck's own philosophical dilemma centers on the voice of God emanating from his TV set. "He wants me to build an ark," he explains confusedly to seminary student Louise. "That's been done, Buck," she replies in fine dry fashion.

Louise is a nice creation, a rare woman of faith on the contemporary secular stage, and in Lauren Tewes she finds an amiable portrayal. Rita (Pamela Stewart) doesn't fare so well with her creator; Dietz makes her the predictably shrill ex-wife, with a chilly addiction to cell phones. Roscoe delivers a touching Trisha.

The most difficult role to play is Donny himself. Rhoads, who appeared earlier this season as the comical husband in Blithe Spirit, is handicapped by Donny's passivity. Dietz himself tells us that the play is about rediscovering the "road not taken." But Donny's solution is hardly active: Though he does make amends with his daughter, he doesn't try to win back his wife or begin to design beautiful landscapes. Instead, he places himself idly in the recliner (itself a visual pun about inertia) and asks that the parallel universe change his life for him. He remains a sad and almost impenetrable character.

ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein directs this ambitious work, the third Dietz play to premiere at ATC in four years. Even in Goldstein's hands Rocket Man remains more a collection of provocative ideas than a successful play. Almost redeeming its failures is the attic set by Scott Weldin. When it falls away to reveal a stunning starry universe to Donny, we're almost ready to launch ourselves into that parallel world with him.

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