"Of Mice and Men" is a thankless gig unless you're playing one of the two main roles. The other players exist mostly to move Lennie and George from place to place.
Even if the supporting actors are all strong -- and in Perseverance Theatre's production, they aren't -- their work is mostly a prop for the interplay between the developmentally disabled Lennie (Bostin Christopher) and his friend and protector George (Kevin Bennett).
The two men are itinerant "bindlestiffs," migrant laborers seeking work on California ranches. They move around even more than most because Lennie keeps getting into trouble. Abnormal strength paired with socially unacceptable (though innocent) behaviors mean they often leave one step ahead of the law, or the lynch mob.
Although George rants about how much easier traveling solo would be, Lennie is the only constant in his life. The two men's fates are twisted together like the strands in a horsehair rope another character braids onstage. In a sense, George uses Lennie the way Lennie uses soft things: as a comfort and a distraction from the world's cruelties.
The actors embodied the show's two main themes -- loneliness and Otherness -- in very different ways at Thursday night's preview. Christopher resisted the impulse to play Lennie as either a child or a holy fool. His Lennie is not a caricature, but a human being with whom many people can identify: a perpetual outsider who wants to belong but makes do with a place on the periphery.
Bennett's performance was subtle and powerful, vibrating with a complex mix of class anger and cowboy stoicism. You get the sense of a man who knows how life really works but who keeps spinning dreams as unlikely as the stories in the Western adventure magazines read by the other ranch hands. The fairy tale of a little piece of land, a place where they can be safe and secure, is as much for his own benefit as Lennie's.
It's worth noting that while John Steinbeck wrote the novella "Of Mice and Men" during the Great Depression, its themes resonate during a recession, too. Inadequate retirement plans, a lack of job security and workers who can't afford homes are all part of the story.
The set furthers the impression of gloom and deprivation: dim lighting, bare tables, crates and straight-back chairs, bunk beds, and no bright colors.
The other eight actors in the cast ranged from adequate to more or less acceptable. Perhaps it is unfair to contrast them with the powerhouse lead actors. At times it was hard even to see the supporting characters onstage: Christopher and Bennett drew the viewer's gaze the way magnets attract iron.
Put another way: With intermission, the show runs three hours but if it weren't for the scene changes, you'd swear it was a one-act play. The two actors really are that good and their performances should not be missed.
Donna Freedman, a former Daily News reviewer, writes MSN Money's Frugal Nation site and blogs at DonnaFreedman.com.
By DONNA FREEDMAN
Daily News correspondent