John Steinbeck's novel "Of Mice and Men" was embraced almost immediately as a Depression-era classic when it was published in the 1930s. When Steinbeck reworked it into a play in 1937, it was accepted as another important step in stage naturalism. A later movie version, though flawed, was also successful.
Over the years, the book became almost a learning tool as many teachers, seeing the simple, moralistic tale of a drifter and his hulking, mentally retarded friend as an allegory for injustice and compassion, often placed it at the top of their reading lists. (I remember my sixth-grade teacher enthralling us with the story; as kids, natural outcasts in the grown-up world, we identified with gentle, misunderstood Lenny.)
At the time, it was even considered a valuable study in retardation, a notion that has since been abandoned. Now, Lenny may seem like a superficial, even condescending portrait, especially in a time when our knowledge of disorders is so much fuller and we have a more dimensional view of the individuals themselves. It's been a while since we've thought of the disabled as merely helpless, totally dependent on others.
But despite this weakness, "Of Mice and Men," both the novel and play, can still move us. The bond between Lenny and George is powerful and, even with the story's tragic ending, liberating.
At the Huntington Beach Playhouse, director Laurie T. Freed realizes its strength as an emotional vehicle and tries to tap into that force. Unfortunately, it's a venture marred by stumbles in style and tempo.
There are patches when the tension, the drama, comes close to the right pitch but more often than not the production lacks consistency and the dramatic rhythm needed to hold us. It's a well-intentioned but awkward production.
The acting is also rocky. At times, Bill Hilton's Lennie seems right: a confused, frightened and frightening giant. But generally he relies on the cliches that have afflicted this character for years in countless other portrayals. It's not a bad performance, just predictable.
As George, Gregory Cohen is good at showing his exasperation and love for Lenny, feelings that try his patience (and sanity) repeatedly. But there are many moments when he appears uncomfortable with the role, and the acting is too obvious. This is a distraction that weakens our ability to feel the all-important connection between the men.
The rest of the cast performs reasonably well, with Geoff Draper the most convincing as Slim. Laurie T. Freed's primary set of a ranch bunkhouse is minimal but effective enough, but Jim R. D. Lee's sound--like a cinematic device, it shadows dramatic scenes--is more intrusive than mood-setting.
'OF MICE AND MEN'
A Huntington Beach Playhouse production of John Steinbeck's drama. Directed by Laurie T. Freed. With Gregory Cohen, Bill Hilton, Gayle Morton, Rick Paap, Gary Coffman, Elizabeth Lipman, Geoff Draper, Tim Bagley, K. J. Smith and Dorsey J. Watson. Sets by Laurie T. Freed. Lighting and sound by Jim R. D. Lee. Plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at 21141 Strathmoor Lane, Huntington Beach. Tickets: $5 to $8. Information: (714) 832-1405.