Foreground: John Mahoney;Background: Paul Vincent O'Connor andLouis Cancelmi in The Drawer Boy(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
Foreground: John Mahoney;
Background: Paul Vincent O'Connor and
Louis Cancelmi in The Drawer Boy
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
Here's a brief literary brain-teaser: What do you get when you cross Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men? Well, you get something very like Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy, which might as readily have been called Of Cows and Men. (On second thought, it's just as well that it wasn't.)

Productions of Healey's three-hander have been cropping up across the country and internationally without anyone having yet chosen to bring the work to Manhattan; reportedly, there were 24 productions in the states last year and 31 elsewhere. Often, when this kind of reticence exists, it's because producers suspect that New York audiences (read: New York critics) will not appreciate a script that isn't up to snooty big-city standards. But there's no need for The Drawer Boy, which has now tip-toed as close to NYC as Millburn's Paper Mill Playhouse, to be shy about venturing farther east. There's plenty to recommend it, as the above implied comparisons suggests. Healey's play is no lightweight time-killer like, say, Springtime for Henry, which actually played Broadway in the early '30s and then again in the early '50s but became a laughingstock as Edward Everett Horton repeatedly barnstormed it.

No, Drawer Boy takes up the substantial issue of storytelling as a format for potential healing as well as for harm, and the thoughtful, eventually touching drama scores telling points. Morgan (John Mahoney), raised to be a farmer, has been care-taking Angus (Paul Vincent O'Connor), who was born with a talent for drawing, at their central Ontario farm since the two of them returned from World War II London and the Blitz. It's 1972. Nightly, Morgan tells Angus, who suffered severe memory loss due to a war injury, the story of how they grew up together, soldiered together, and met two English girls whom they brought home and then lost in an automobile accident.

The routine is upset when Miles (Louis Cancelmi), an actor working on an improvised play about farmers, arrives at the doorstep of set designer Todd Rosenthal's carefully crafted farmhouse and begins taking notes. Morgan doesn't cotton to the idea of Miles's lurking about but initially puts up with it; he also figures he can teach the newcomer a few farming tricks. So he remains relatively sanguine, if taciturn, until he and Angus are invited to a rehearsal of the piece that Miles is compiling and hears his and Angus's tale recited from the stage. Then he insists that Miles leave the premises. But Angus, who heretofore hasn't even remembered Miles's face or name whenever he encounters him in the house, begins to recall fragments of his past.

Healey handily deals with the crucial subjects of memory, the use of stories to heal and conceal, the sacrifices that lasting friendship sometimes requires, and the props people use to ease the pains of their wounded lives. In Morgan, Angus, and Miles, Healey has created three sympathetic figures to tell his story of redemptive storytelling. He's fashioned a parable of people, caught in fraught situations, enriching each other's lives. One of the subtleties of the play, for instance, involves Morgan's penchant for sly jokes eventually reversing Miles's gullibility.

The similarities between The Drawer Boy and Of Mice and Men are more extensive than Morgan and Angus being reminiscent of Steinbeck's George and Lenny, another couple of men in which the mentally-agile one looks after the brain-damaged one. Moreover, the comparison with Ethan Frome goes deeper than Morgan and Angus living an emotionally deprived existence reminiscent of the aggrieved life that Wharton's characters endure at the end of their dispiriting saga. Both the Wharton and Steinbeck works are short novels -- and, curiously, Healey's endeavor feels like a short novel that's been adapted for the stage. It gives the impression of something that lacks theatrical drama, as differentiated from page drama. It's not that it's ineffective in the playing, but it seems as if The Drawer Boy would be even more effective and disturbing if read rather than seen.

Louis Cancelmi, John Mahoney, and Paul Vincent O'Connorin The Drawer Boy(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
Louis Cancelmi, John Mahoney, and Paul Vincent O'Connor
in The Drawer Boy
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
The theatricality of the Paper Mill production is enhanced by lighting designer Kevin Adams, who does a beautiful job of establishing various times of day on a working farm, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who've put together a sound design that helps establish the barnyard surroundings. Just as efficiently, Anna D. Shapiro directs John Mahoney, Paul Vincent O'Connor, and Louis Cancelmi. Mahoney, who's been quoted as saying that he wants to dedicate his post-Frasier career to the stage, plays a drolly sad man whose stooped shoulders and pained expression imply that he's weighed down by a secret. O'Connor makes the memory-challenged Angus completely charming and thoroughly lost. Cancelmi's wide-eyed, well-meaning Miles is recognizable and appealing.

The Drawer Boy is yet another of this year's many prominent productions of plays with all-male casts. It's beginning to seem as if there's something in the Zeitgeist -- or, at least, in the air that playwrights breathe -- compelling dramatists to depict all-male environments. Why the current theatrical emphasis on men and their relationships to one another? What's being implied by the scrutiny of men without women? Well, that's a subject for a Ph.D. dissertation. The immediate point to be made is that watching Morgan, Angus, and Miles affect each other has its decided rewards.