Jim DeVita and Brian Mani in American Players Theatre's Of Mice and Men.
John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is not a comedy. However, you might not know that from the audience reaction to the American Players Theatre production of the classic novella. Saturday night, the first half of the show found people laughing heartily at any opportunity. At intermission, I caught snippets of conversation suggesting that some weren't familiar with the book at all.
So let me remind you. Of Mice and Men tells a tragic story. Lennie and George are two migrant farm workers who share a brotherly love for each other and dream of owning their own land. They've been run out of the last town, but they remain optimistic and determined to start over and get their piece of the American Dream.
Lennie, played by Brian Mani, is a man who doesn't know his own strength, who loves things to the point of breaking them. He is called "nuts" and "dumb" by everyone he meets. What he doesn't possess in intellectual abilities he makes up for in physical power. He's an imposing figure, nearly twice the size of his pal George.
Mani's Lennie is exaggerated, even a bit cartoonish at moments, with an overt emphasis on his childlike nature. I'd have preferred a bit more subtlety in the role, though his goofiness serves to make the awful events that unfold all the more shocking.
Jim DeVita plays George expertly. The role of Lennie's intense protector is a perfect fit for DeVita, for his theatrical force. George has been taking care of Lennie for years, and it's clear that he needs Lennie as much as Lennie needs him. DeVita delicately portrays George's neediness.
This production of Of Mice and Men requires tremendous physicality from the actors, and they deliver superbly. The fight scene between Lennie and fiery Curley (Matt Schwader) is very well choreographed, crisp and engaging. It's startlingly realistic, too. Curley's crushed hand is limp and bloody enough to be the real thing. La Shawn Banks' portrayal of a farmhand with a severely damaged back is likewise physically demanding. His hunch and his labored walk are extremely convincing.
One of the most chilling moments is when the farmhands wait for Candy's elderly dog out to be shot. Candy, played by Paul Bentzen, sprawls silently on his bed, and the other men are nearly frozen, waiting to hear the ring of the gunshot. The silence and stillness last long enough to make the audience uncomfortable. When the shot finally comes, it is especially shudder-inducing and serves as a dark hint of what's to come.
On Saturday, the final scene left audience members hushed, seemingly stunned, for a moment or two longer than usual. The standing ovation that followed made it clear that they were also pleased.