John Steinbeck may have written "Of Mice and Men" as a novella, but he always had theatrical aspirations for it. After the book launched his literary celebrity in 1937, he turned it into a play, which began a respectable Broadway run later that year, and a critically acclaimed film followed. More stage and screen versions have been attempted, but no matter how good the dramatization, "Of Mice and Men" will always be that slim junior-high classic that (despite the teacher's harping on foreshadowing) unlocked the gripping power of narrative storytelling.
The new production of Steinbeck's drama, which opened Friday at the Pasadena Playhouse, doesn't alter this equation. The swiftly moving plot is cleanly delivered on D. Martyn Bookwalter's unobtrusive set, but the overriding sense is of an illustrated tale whose characters have been conjured less subtly than one imagined them. Dramatically captivating without being emotionally stirring, the tragedy ultimately seems reduced to a coloring-book outline instead of transfigured into flesh-and-blood experience.
But there's a larger issue stemming from Paul Lazarus' well-intentioned direction. George, a jaded if caring itinerant farmworker, and Lennie, the mentally disabled friend he looks after, have been recast as Mexicans, along with some of the ranch hands they work with. The playbill explains that the action has been updated to 1942, when the Bracero Program brought thousands of skilled Mexican laborers to the U.S., including the Salinas River Valley, where Steinbeck's story is set. But except for a few Spanish substitutions and a bit of cutting, the play hasn't been revised so much as given a new context that hasn't been fully thought through.
In truth, you should probably pretend this is an example of color-blind casting and read the director's note afterward. Knowledge of the Bracero Treaty isn't required, and there's an image in the program that points out the half-baked nature of Lazarus' approach. We're shown a sign from the period (taken from Texas but presumably not limited to that state) that says, "No Dogs Negroes Mexicans." Yet the specific discriminatory situation of Mexican workers is ignored onstage. George is treated just as he is in the original, a laborer sacrificing his freedom for his slow sidekick. If he has other problems -- cultural estrangement, bracero exploitation, literacy in a foreign tongue -- you'll have to infer them.
In an effort to be more inclusive and resonant, Lazarus' production evades history by making the marginalized, oppressed and down-and-out seem interchangeable. Steinbeck may have been in perpetual search of a more enlightened social structure, but his quest for community didn't blind him to the fact that different groups have different challenges. Ageism, racism, attitudes toward the disabled and the low status of women are all encompassed in this compact fiction.
The most moving episode in the book is the meeting between Lennie and Crooks, the black stable worker who lives apart from the others on account of his race. Here, two men at the bottom of the totem pole tentatively relate to each other as human beings. The moment, however, is destroyed when the flirtatious wife of the boss' son arrives, demanding to know how her insanely jealous husband, Curley, really broke his hand. Furious at Crooks for trying to throw her out before she can discover that Lennie had inflicted it in self-defense, she tells the black employee, "I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain't even funny."
This explosive line isn't in Steinbeck's adaptation (just one of many reasons why you're better off returning to the novella), though the drama throbs with an awareness of how the deprived and lonely are encouraged to turn on each other in their disappointment over the ever-elusive American dream. For Lazarus to extend this to Mexican workers in the '40s, he needed to provide not just a superficial textual touch-up but also some mention of the treatment they faced. A directorial concept can't do it alone, and the playbill and a photo exhibit at the theater's Friendship Center are separate from what's onstage.
How does the production hold up otherwise? The ensemble's portrayals aren't forged with fresh insights, though they're generally competent. Al Espinosa, in the tricky role of Lennie, allows us to appreciate the childlike simplicity of a grown man who's built like an ox. He's still nudging George (a sharp-edged David Norona) about tending the rabbits at their illusory cottage, but his sensitivity keeps him from seeming like a cartoon.
Madison Dunaway fetchingly fulfills the part of Curley's unhappily married wife, Curtis C. infuses Crooks with a prophet's anger and Alex Mendoza brings a quiet strength to Slim, the all-knowing skinner who doesn't have to act tough to convey his authority.
Too often, however, the production asks us to doubt our eyes. For example, Candy (Thomas Kopache), an old farm hand, has a decrepit mutt that's about to be put down, but the energetic dog following him could hardly seem healthier. It's one of those curious details -- along with the Anglo names for supposedly Mexican characters -- that makes suspending disbelief harder in more crucial matters.
The playwright August Strindberg once decried the state of theater as a "Bible in pictures for those who cannot read." It's a pity that more than a century later, producers and directors still seem to be underestimating us.
'Of Mice and Men'
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Ends: June 8
Price: $25 to $65
Contact: (626) 356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes