All I tried to write was the story of two Salinas Valley vagrants. It hasn't any meaning or special significance outside of what appears on the surface. It's just a story. I don't know what it means if anything and I'm damned if I care."--John Steinbeck, 1937, speaking of his first success. Of Mice and Men.
JOHN STEINBECK probably would have cared if he had witnessed Of Mice and Men currently showing at the Loeb Drama Center. Though the play mildly captures a sense of feeling. I never felt I was watching the art of Steinbeck. Edward Zwick, Director, has attempted to day so true to Steinbeck's mere "story" concept that he succeeds in presenting a disconnected production which floats above the surface of any lasting import. Whether or not there is meaning to Of Mice and Men, Zwick fails to move his actors towards the limitless emotion of Steinbeck's characters. Consequently, the Loeb version lacks the display of a certain vigor to search, not for meaning, but for some expressive value stronger than dramatic dialogue.
The pure and simple theatrical description of two wandering personalities of the Depression is indeed difficult to accomplish. (The program lists the time of the play as the present. This is not only counter to the dialogue to the dialogue but it neglects the historical perspective of Steinbeck.) Yet Joseph Ruggiero's production makes a valiant attempt at depicting Steinbeck's mastery of human suffering. Four actors in particular almost capture the sense of feeling in Steinbeck. Robert Jacobson, as Lennie, plods through Act I with a disappointing facade of imitation. When the curtain rises in Act II, Jacobson comes alive and displays a brilliance equalled only by one other actor. The sensitivity which Jacobson finally brings to the play is masterfully manipulated in his physical movements. The delicate stroking of his fingers and the emotional outbursts at the deaths of his pet dog and Curley's wife show promising talent. However, the part is so uniquely difficult that few, if any, actors could master it completely.
A similar level of talent comes from Jon Spayde as he portrays Candy, Whoever puts the make-up on his face should be given an extra round of applause. Not only does Spayde walk, speak, and think old, he looks his part to the tee. Bill Strong, as Slim, carries the play through some rough sections and exerts fatherly confidence in contrast to the surrounding restlessness. Crooks, the stable buck "nigger" played by Paul D. Nichols, produces a forceful image. His accent is excellent and comes forth eloquently in his conversation with Lennie.
UNFORTUNATELY, THE PLAY IS disconnected for two reasons. First, most of the actors obtain their height of perfection too late. Of Mice and Men may have a couple of high points and a dramatic ending to aim for, but Act I and other lesser scenes must display more enthusiasm. The actors' sensitivity or meanness should never falter. The opening dialogue between Lennie and George does not exhibit Steinbeck's intensity (although George's shouting does spark things up a bit.)
The play's second shortcoming revolves around several of the actors. Ralph Pochoda, as George, has a formidable part. He tries hard but either acts too strongly or too weakly. Portraying Curley is Nelson Denis who should be driving a motorcycle with Hell's Angels. His acting is enjoyable though he should have saved it for West Side Story. Curley's wife, Susan Ruel, is attractive yet much too nice and not bitchy enough for her part. Finally, Ken Rosenfield, the Boss, not only looks out of place but acts the same way too.
Of Mice and Men is an extremely delicate play to direct and I would not totally blame Zwick for the lack of intensity displayed. Rather, I would question Steinbeck and the Loeb for thrusting onto the audience a story so intensely sensitive that almost any production could only fall short of displaying the characters Lennie and George. Perhaps Steinbeck, explained this dilemma best when he wrote of the story as "an experiment in making a play that can be read or a novel that can be played..." The play's emotion comes across in its reading, not its stage performance. Yet Zwick stuck to the play without discovering the novel. There is little attempt in the Loeb's production to act out the unspoken paragraphs of Steinbeck's novel.
PERHAPS THIS IS asking the impossible of any performance. But to divulge this story requires more than the spoken word. The director and actors must sense that they are depicting a novel with all the complexities of feeling. Only a few actors really attempt to capture this. The play may be a simple story but the involvement required of the actors endows this play with a complexity difficult to master.
The pathos in Of Mice and Men evades the Loeb and left me yearning for the written word, play or novel. I would not discouraged anyone from seeing it. I would only recommend that the novel be read beforehand to catch the beauty of Steinbeck. For the play complements yet never becomes the drama intervening between mice and men.