Greg Northam

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Neil Simon’s Rumors Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

I heard a rumor that Burlington County Footlighters were putting on a show that featured a series of misunderstandings, slapstick humor and numerous comedic antics. Much to my relief they didn’t present a stage rendition of a Three’s Company episode. On Friday night I experienced the pleasure of attending the opening night showing of Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Scott Angehr.

The title served as a good summation of this show’s content.  Upon arriving for a dinner party hosted by the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife, guests Ken Gorman (Played by Gary Werner) and Chris Gorman (played by Corinne Hower-Greene) discovered him bleeding while his wife and servants were missing. They suspected he attempted suicide. They then called a doctor. When Chris got him on the phone, Ken then told her to say everything was fine. It turned out the Deputy Mayor only shot off part of his earlobe. Ken thought it best to discover what happened before contacting anyone else. He didn’t want his friend to get involved in a scandal.

Following that, more guests started arriving. Lenny Ganz (played by Paul Sollimo) and Claire Ganz (Megan Shafranski) entered the house. Ken and Chris used a series of stories to explain why the Deputy Mayor, his wife and the servants weren’t at the party. After they discovered the truth, more guests showed up. The four of them decided not to tell the new arrivals, Ernie Cusack (Greg Northram) and Cookie Cusack (Valerie Brothers), what had happened. This turned in to quite a challenge as Mr. Cusack worked as a psychoanalyst.

Gossip swirled around the characters’ romantic peccadillos. That led to even more misunderstandings. Are you following the plot at all? Well, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that all these antics made for an enjoyable evening of comedic mishaps from a series of quirky characters played by talented thespians.

The true highlight of the evening took place in the interplay between Glenn Cooper (played by Dan Brothers) and his wife Cassie (played by the omni-talented Rachel Comenzo). In the past I’ve watched Mr. Brothers perform serious dramatic roles. Most recently I saw him play the grief-stricken father in Footlighters’ production of Rabbit Hole. I’ve also attended several performances featuring Ms. Comenzo. She’s a gifted actress, but I’ve always thought her a stronger singer and dancer. When I read the cast list, it interested me to see how the two of them would play a married couple in a comedy. They both delivered performances well in excess of my expectations.

There’s an old adage about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Ms. Comenzo showed that Humorous Heaven has a special place for one, too. She did a phenomenal job of balancing anger and comedy in her opening argument with Mr. Brothers. I liked the way she could raise her voice in the context of an emotional conversation while still speaking clearly. Following this outburst, she admired herself in the mirror. These mannerisms provided great insight into the character.

Mr. Brothers did a fantastic job playing the “innocent” husband in the face of his wife’s accusations. In addition, he handled the physical comedy very well. In the hands of most performers slapstick becomes caricature. Mr. Brothers demonstrated that he isn’t “most performers.” He convincingly handled falling down after getting hit by a door. The most memorable moment of his performance occurred after his wife assaulted him with a phone. Mr. Brothers has a natural bass voice. With cotton stuffed up his nose he spoke in a high-pitched nasal squeal. Like his counterpart, he talked very clearly.

Proficiency at physical comedy must run in the family. Mr. Brother’s real-life wife, Valerie Brothers, got in on the act in her role as Cookie Cusack. Her character suffered from back problems that prevented her from both “walking” and “sitting”.  The audience roared as she made her way across the stage on her hands and feet with her body at a 90 degree angle. In order to do that she first had to lift herself out of a chair using only her upper body.

As readers if this blog are aware, in the past I’ve been attacked for making “troubling” and “disturbing” comments about female costuming. During this show I did have an observation about one of the actress’ attire. In the interest of artistic integrity I’m going to state it.

Corrine Hower-Greene played Chris Gorman, very well. From the trembling voice, the facial expressions and stumbling around the stage with a wine bottle she displayed the appropriate mannerisms of a neurotic woman. I thought some of her attire too distracting, though. While the plain black evening gown she wore contrasted well with the solid white background, my eyes kept getting drawn to her shoes. I agree that glittery silver shoes would be appropriate attire for a dinner party. I could imagine her character wearing them to such an occasion. For me, they stood out and kept diverting my attention. With the exception of Valerie Brothers, whose character wore a white dress, all the other actors wore dark colored shoes. As I wrote, Ms. Hower-Green is an exceptional performer with great stage presence. Audiences should be watching her performance, not staring at her shoes.

The antics and misunderstandings continued until the final curtain. The surprise ending left open the possibility of a sequel. If someone writes one, let’s hope the cast of Burlington County Footlighters’ production is available. They had such fantastic chemistry working together that I’d welcome the opportunity to see them reprise these roles. And that’s a fact, not a rumor.