Rocket to the Moon, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London

Biting drama with not too much filling
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The Independent Culture

Long before Clifford Odets went to Hollywood and wrote one of the best movies ever about newspaper ethics, Sweet Smell of Success, he produced a series of plays for the Group Theatre that radicalised Broadway.

One of them, in 1938, was Rocket to the Moon, in which a flustered dentist, Ben Stark, on the brink of a mid-life crisis, is diverted from a stale marriage by a vivacious, little-girl-lost secretary, Cleo Singer, in the middle of a long hot summer in Manhattan.

Sounds familiar? Surely The Seven Year Itch (1955), with its sense of flirtatious danger, tentative adultery, playfulness and its suffocating heat, was modelled on this play.

There's a scene in Angus Jackson's inaccurately accented revival in which Jessica Raine's bubble-headed, impetuous Cleo casually adjusts the stays and girdle under her white dental secretary's uniform. It's not quite the same as Marilyn Monroe holding down her white pleats over the subway ventilator, but it sends the same message.

And there's a lot of Tom Ewell's professional city slicker in Joseph Millson's pole-axed Ben, but the role, and the play, is edged with a black border of failure. The recession is biting for dentists. Ben's colleague, Phil Cooper (Peter Sullivan), owes three months' rent and is so under-booked that a distant relative is coming in for a free clean.

In two brief appearances, Ben's wife Belle (Keeley Hawes, not remotely Jewish enough) berates him for his incompetence and dithering, cruelly reminding him it's the anniversary of their lost child. And his widowed father-in-law, Mr Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), who also flirts with Cleo, encourages him to go ahead and have the affair.

Neither the cast nor the audience felt confident in the play on opening night. There's not enough relaxation, or attack, in the acting, and the hard-boiled quality of the lines – Odets is anticipating Neil Simon, too – is lost in delivery. But the quality shines through, and the classic Odets mix of mordant observation and idealistic yearning exerts a strong pull.

The vast Lyttelton stage is filled by designer Anthony Ward with a huge dental surgery backing on to the Algiers Hotel (where Mr Prince imagines all sorts of illicit liaisons) and an under-used corridor running alongside. When Belle returns, she offers Ben something even worse than what they already have: her services, instead of Cleo's, as his workmate, poignancy and punishment combined.

There's a wise-cracking Swedish chiropodist (Sebastian Armesto) across the way, and a wolfish entrepreneur called Willy Wax (Tim Steed) whose name in reverse would suit such a total dickhead. The programme also lists, mysteriously, an ensemble of five other actors who never appear, presumably because they're understudies?

Rocket's original director, Harold Clurman, felt that Odets never properly decided whether the play was about the dentist's despair or the girl's aspirations, but you don't feel that's a problem as Millson flounders painfully, and evocatively, and Raine hits her stride as someone who won't settle for halves: once a week, she says, is enough to go out with an old man. She wants a whole full world with all the trimmings. Will she ever get them? Did Marilyn Monroe?

In rep to 21 June (020 7452 3000)