Despite early attempts at censorship for "vulgar" language and disturbing content, John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men has entered the mainstream, becoming required reading in high schools all over the English-speaking world. Consequently, Steinbeck's stage version fits the goals of Prime Stage Theatre, to "bring literature to life" and "enrich audiences from middle school through senior citizens."
It remains an instructive but provocative choice. Instructive because Steinbeck delves into a dark period of American history, creating something both complex and simple. As for provocation, given contemporary movie dialogue, Of Mice and Men seems fairly harmless. But harm, danger, cruelty and sorrow course through the book's pages, giving it a potential for movingly mature drama. At Prime Stage, director Richard Keitel and a good cast almost get there, making the story believable.
During the Great Depression, migrant farm workers and companions George and Lennie get ranch jobs. The unwitting and potentially dangerous actions of physically imposing, developmentally disabled Lennie have kept the pair on the move while George tries to get them to earn enough money to live quietly on their own land. But as Robert Burns put it, "the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley."
Amid physically and emotionally crippled people, mice and other creatures are all vulnerable -- as vulnerable as bewildered Lennie, but more fragile.
Intellectually, you can see how well Steinbeck foreshadowed developments with solid exposition while darkening early scenes with foreboding. He also makes clear the inner complexities of other characters, such as sorrowful Candy, who must give up his aging, ailing dog; the Boss's nasty, aggressive son Curley; and Curley's hostile and needy wife.
On the surface, though, much of the first act lacks drama, consisting more of dialogue than developments, awaiting the better second act's disturbing, inevitable events. Thus this looks more like a sincere retelling of acclaimed material rather than a well-developed play.
Everything the cast does makes the characters genuine, especially Randy Kovitz's Lennie and Dominick Giovanni's Curley. Collectively, they and the other actors capably convey all the right dimensions of the exteriors. Keitel's staging also brings out nuances well. But like Brian Czarniecki's George, the portrayals suffer from an overall shortcoming: They don't get far enough inside the characters. To make this story live up to its sad and tragic potential, Keitel needs to find a way to have his principal actors go deeper -- not an easy assignment.
Class discussion is advised to discover what lies beneath the surface.
Of Mice and Men continues through Sun., March 2. New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. 412-771-7373 or www.primestage.com