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STAGE REVIEW

The Worst of Times

'Mice and Men' rings with the pain of the '30s.

April 09, 1998|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — Very rarely does a novelist dramatize his work for the stage, but John Steinbeck's adaptation of the short novel that made him famous opened on Broadway not long after "Of Mice and Men" was published.

The play, in a revival at Newport Theatre Arts Center, is still as strong as the book it was based on. Few could capture the pain of the disenfranchised man during the Great Depression like Steinbeck.

"Of Mice and Men" chronicles an almost preordained tragedy for two migrant ranch workers who find shelter on a Salinas River spread. Lennie has the mind of a child; he loves to pet small animals and touch soft things. His cousin George is his guardian angel, shielding Lennie from his mistakes. George and Lennie are ready to sink into their new jobs to forget the past, and to dream their dream about a little spread of their own.

The evocative chiaroscuro lighting for this staging, by Chris Medvitz, creates magical moments in William Cole's grungy bunkhouse setting and sets up a telling framework for the drama. Director Phyllis B. Gitlin fills that framework with mood and tension, and her unhurried tempos move the story along with mounting suspense.

What she has not been able to do is evoke meaningful performances from Brad Weber as George and Maria D'Ambrosio as the blowzy wife of the rancher's son. D'Ambrosio makes too much of the woman's cheapness and doesn't give her scatterbrained manner enough empathy to make her tragic end as powerful as it could be.

Weber has all the right qualities for George, tenderness edged with slight sparks of anger at being hampered by Lennie's dependence, but his performance at times is out of sync with the rest of the action.

At first it appears that Weber is having trouble remembering his lines, but it soon becomes obvious that his halting speech is his idea of acting. And someone must have told him he looks like the young John Barrymore; he takes a great deal of time getting into Barrymore poses, and generally moves stage front to make longer speeches directly at the audience rather than to the other actors.

The rest of the company can't be knocked. Christian Weiser is a rock-solid Lennie, touching and innocently childlike, with many moments of delicate pathos. Paul Blair couldn't be better as the aging Candy, at the end of his hope, but willing to buy into George and Lennie's dream. Rob Young is a fine Curly, the pugnacious son of the rancher, whose wife is always looking for greener pastures; Young's edgy, short-fused anger is restrained and potent.

Louis Hale, as the only black hand on the ranch, stands out for holding back Crooks' anger at his life, another of Steinbeck's statements about man's inhumanity to man in that sad period. David Morgan and Joshua Levy are also notable as two brash, volatile ranch hands, and David Shein, as the ranch owner, has an honest, no-nonsense aura that's just right.

BE THERE

"Of Mice and Men," Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends May 3. (714) 631-0288. $13. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

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