ROCKET TO THE MOON, National Jewish Theater. The plot sounds simple, even sudsy: a Depression-era dentist nearing 40, losing customers, and hobbled with a control-freak wife discovers that he’s unconditionally loved by his naive, romance-craving 20-year-old assistant. This first–and no doubt last–chance at happiness demands a courage that Ben Stark has never before needed, and may not be able to muster.

As superbly imagined by Clifford Odets, the tale is more than a generic mid-life crisis. In this quietly devastating script, fully felt in Jeff Ginsberg’s National Jewish Theater staging, Stark’s dilemma sheds a lot of light on how loneliness feeds guilt and how love chokes on need; clearly, reciprocity is not enough. What’s moving here is what doesn’t happen: Rocket to the Moon is far wiser than the wishes it triggers in its audience. The title comes from one of Odets’s wry takes on life: when we’re young, we want to build a rocket to the moon–but we settle for erecting a shack. Odets shapes the complex choices of these full-blooded characters with a restorative compassion, rare today, that’s almost godlike.

Solid performances drive that compassion home: Warren Davis as the hapless, drifting dentist; Suellen Burton as his desperate, disillusioned wife; Richard Wharton as a bitter colleague; Patrick Nugent as a love-wise podiatrist; and Arthur Pearson as a venal gigolo. At the heart of the play are Dawn Maxey, poignant and real as the assistant who won’t settle for anything less than love, and Jim Mohr as Stark’s wise father-in-law, a repository of crackling, pungent lines.