Niagara Gazette

May 8, 2014

Area theaters take a step back to 1937 with "Of Mice and Men" and "You Can't Take It With You"

Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — It’s 1937 all over again on area stages. “You Can’t Take It with You” and “Of Mice & Men,” Broadway contemporaries 77 years ago, both opened Friday, separated by content and a continent, unified in their depiction of loyalty in desperate times.

“OF MICE & MEN” – Woodbox Theater at the NAAC, Pine & Portage, meets the challenge of John Steinbeck’s grim, enlightening mini-saga. Two drifters, George small and canny, Lenny huge and simple, wander into a California ranch to find the ways and means of independence.

Sami Grawe efficiently directs Chris Best and Tim Kordela, Best playing down his own years to capture George’s conflicted sense of duty in his rolling eyes, Kordela splendid as the helpless man-child, obsessively twisting at his shirt-tail. He makes you laugh, and feel guilty for it.

Support comes from Bob Priest as maimed old Candy and his last-legs dog; Peter-Mark Raphael singularly sinister as Curly (ironic, in view of his hairstyle); Drew Krause as the savvy mule-skinner Slim; Paul Everett as the sullenly segregated Crooks; Savanna Easton as the voluptuous vamp; ex-ump Sam Granieri, with the task of making the final call on the dog and peppy young John Macomber.

The dog, Arrow, Priest’s own, scores a bullseye.

The set is spare and often effective, the cast eager and sincere. Slim says, “You don’t need no smarts to be a nice guy,” and you don’t need an Equity card to bring “Mice & Men” to life.

“YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU” – On a set that redefines “garage-sale chic,” Niagara Regional Guild stages this sprawling comedy as a farce fresh out of finishing school. Few doors slam but the motion is perpetual, even when Alice Sycamore (Sarah Stroka, a dreamboat in blue) intersects the trajectory of dart-throwing Grandpa Vanderhof (Chuck Slisz, faithfully genial).

Whereas George and Lenny sweat for their stake, Grandpa distributes his, having shoved his 9-to-5 and opened his digs to a menagerie ranging from alcoholic actress to part-time pryotechnician.

Andrea Letcher glows as the attention-challenged Penny, percolating from one endeavor to another – playwright, novelist, artist, game-show hostess. Penny never painted a portrait as vivid as the reality Letcher gives to this airily sensual optimist. “Everybody got sex?” she flightily inquires. No, but we’ll take a number and wait our turn.

Among others who bring it with them: Cassandra Grizanti as the clumsy, confectioner Essie, Diane Serra and Tom Slaiman making the politically incorrect servants’ roles their own and Steve Jakiel as the master of extreme, full-contact ballet. Every part fits. Director Gary Gaffney cast no small actors.

Grim, inevitable “Mice & Men” takes Mothers Day off. “Can’t Take” seems just the ticket. Each runs through May 18, plenty of time to take in two talented takes on the way it was.

Doug Smith, age 2 when both debuted, has reviewed local theater since 1968.