K. Winston Osgood and John Toppingin Of Mice and Men(Photo: Nick Andrews)
K. Winston Osgood and John Topping
in Of Mice and Men
(Photo: Nick Andrews)
In the press release for Mid West Side Productions' Of Mice and Men, director Harvey Perr promises that this staging of John Steinbeck's classic will "confront an element of the play that many have acknowledged but few have tackled...we are going to explore and hopefully illuminate the homosexual undercurrent that exists but is merely alluded to." I'll admit that I found this concept intriguing in the way that one reacts to the news that somebody is about the jump off the Brooklyn Bridge: You feel compelled to watch, whether the result is success or disaster.

As it turns out, there is virtually no homosexual content in this production. Yes, there's a little more touching between the itinerant farm workers George and Lennie than we normally see but -- thank heaven! -- no erogenous zones are involved. And though Lennie throws a blanket over himself and George when both men lie down to sleep in the woods at the end of the first scene, George immediately extricates himself. In sum, anyone looking for homoeroticism here will have to settle for the fact that K. Winston Osgood, who plays George, is hot.

The apparent abandonment of the advertised "gay" approach to the play is all for the best. Among other things, Of Mice and Men specifically concerns the intense, non-sexual bonding that can occur between men. It should also be kept in mind that Lennie is mentally challenged, so any carnal interaction between him and George would almost certainly seem inappropriate because not fully consensual.

What you really need to know about the MWSP production is that the acting is solid across the board and, in four cases, absolutely first rate. As the slow-witted Lennie, John Topping gives a performance that would likely win him a Tony Award if this show were being presented on Broadway rather than in a fifth-floor, black box theater on West 43rd Street. Perhaps the greatest possible praise of his work is to note that the audience at the performance I attended was made up largely of urban youth who were obviously unfamiliar with the experience of live theater and might have been expected to greet the stage depiction of a mentally retarded person with hoots of derision, yet Topping's skillfully calibrated, 100% committed performance held them rapt.

Likewise, Paul Barry, Jefferson Slinkard, and Jason Edwards are total pefection as (respectively) Candy, Slim, and Carlson, contributing richly detailed, wonderfully naturalistic performances of the type that it is truly a privilege to witness. As George, Osgood nearly matches this A-list quartet; he needs to work on focus, yet he is still a talent to be reckoned with. George's complex, co-dependant relationship with Lennie is entirely believable here, in no small part due to Osgood's sensitivity and low-key charisma.

Ken Dapper and Christopher Daftsios are fine as the Boss and Curley, though the fact that Dapper appears to be only a few years older than Daftsios makes them less than fully credible as father and son. As Whit, Douglas Goodenough is good enough but somewhat actor-y when compared with Barry, Slinkard, and Edwards. Caroline Luft overplays the brazen sexuality of Curley's wife, while James Edward's Lee's performance as Crooks is inconsistent. Finally, a pooch named Sunny is terrific as Candy's ancient, nameless, ill-fated dog; she may be far too young for the part and not of the correct breed (or sex), but it sure is nice to have her in this show rather than have Candy's canine remain an off-stage allusion.

Jim Stewart has designed an ingenious set complete with a large, slatted wooden piece that swings open and closed to help indicate various locales including the main bunkhouse set and Crooks' room, not to mention the riverbank where the tragedy begins and ends. Real sawdust on the stage floor adds to the exciting sense of verisimilitude created by the superb actors under Harvey Perr's virtually flawless direction. We could have done without an inserted, wordless scene of Curley and his wife and father at the dinner table in Act I, and the power of the play's climactic moment is lessened by an ill-chosen lighting effect; but, otherwise, Perr knows what he's doing.

Nobody ever said that life in the theater (or life in general) is fair, but it does seem unfortunate that such a worthy production with so many phenomenal actors should be relegated to a brief run Off-Off-Broadway, beyond the notice of most theatergoers and critics (and agents). Do yourself a favor: Catch MWSP's Of Mice and Men before it closes next Sunday. What you'll get, for an extremely low ticket price, is nothing less than a magnificent production of an American classic. And after John Topping has become a major star of stage and screen, as he undoubtedly will, you'll be able to boast that you saw him when.