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There’s a tang emanating from Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage—from the sweat-soaked undershirts and stained mattresses and curdled masculinity that are the essence of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Incredibly, though, the stink isn’t powerful enough. This Depression-era warhorse—about two itinerant farm workers, their small dream, and its deadly consequences—was Sam Shepard before Shepard ever picked up a rope, and a cast needs to fuel up on its testosterone and rage, not tone it down. Arena has come up with a deliciously controlled production, but it’s more ballet than boxing. The fighter looks great, but his punches keep getting pulled.

Those of you who have blown off Steinbeck as high-school-sophomore fare will be amazed at how good his dialogue can be—flinty and crisp, with terms like “jerk-line skinner” and “buck barley” firing through it. Migrant farmhands George Milton and Lennie Small enter fast, two billiard balls still rolling together after some long-forgotten bad shot. Lennie (played by Jack Willis) is a man-child, a simpleton with a linebacker’s physique and a thing for furry creatures. George (Stephen Barker Turner), Lennie’s longtime protector, yearns to break away from his charge and yet can’t bear the thought. They stop running at a farm near California’s Salinas River, having fled a ranch up north where Lennie got in trouble for having stroked a girl’s dress too long while she was in it. When George says to Lennie, “Just let me do all the talking,” you pretty well know neither will be able to keep his mouth shut.

Not that talkers (and listeners) aren’t already crawling all over the farm. In less than 36 hours, anyone who cares to knows that George and Lennie dream of buying their own place, where they can live off “the fat of the land” and Lennie can indulge his obsession with rabbits. And in the ranch hands’ bunkhouse, we’re shown the work team as a prison family—fear, camaraderie, a pecking order, and absolutely no privacy. It’s a Darwinian world where functionality rules, where old dogs are summarily shot and a hand lost in a machine is worth $250. No surprise, then, when two other hands want in on Lennie and George’s scheme and put up almost enough cash to make it happen. These men have an intimacy borne of desperation, a current of empathy that flows even when they brawl. But empathy is a precarious thing, and the band of brothers is threatened by a worker’s pouty new wife, who tortures them with poodle pumps and a dress cut down to yar.

Lennie and George are one of the great pairs in American culture. Their relationship has been described variously as brotherly, master-slave, and the ultimate friendship (not to mention the homophobic insinuations thrown at them by the other characters). Director Liz Diamond emphasizes their coupledom—George ties Lennie’s shoes; Lennie finishes George’s sentences and smoothes his lapels after a trip to the whorehouse. They argue and plan ritualistically: They threaten to leave each other only for the pleasure of making up. Their real home is what’s between them, and when the old and crippled Candy (played by Terrence Currier) and the black stablebuck Crooks (Ray Aranha) horn in on their plans, you see panic momentarily flicker across George’s face, as if he were about to be robbed.

Willis as the damaged Lennie is tremendous, giving a performance of staggering concentration and detail without being the least bit actorly. He rocks softly, lips vibrating with a babbling whisper, eyes glistening and pleading, playing with his overcoat button as if it were the last thing tying down his sanity. His Lennie also has an unnaturally close relationship with his own skin—scratching it, stroking it, rolling around like a dog in it when George describes their dream farm yet again. Willis reveals the full character slowly, so that what early on seemed weird but harmless imperceptibly becomes menacing; his nearly shaved head brings to mind first an asylum resident, then a man (appropriately) about to be executed. Late in the play, Lennie (who’s holding a puppy he’s killed) goes into ecstasy as he remembers stroking a scrap of velvet as a child, and it’s a David Lynch moment: The baby has become a monster.

The production’s problems, though, begin with Turner, whose George lacks the coil of blinding disappointment that makes Of Mice and Men social critique instead of a minor murder story. George crystallizes the play’s choking frustration—at the trap these lives have become, the men’s inability to control their destinies or impulses. And yet Turner plays up his tenderness at the expense of his anger. (When George yells at Lennie, “If I was alone, I could live so easy,” not even he believes it.) And Turner’s voice is too bright and thin for the role, a cornet instead of a raspy saxophone. It needs some mileage on it.

Unfortunately, most of the cast follows George’s lead instead of Lennie’s, not cutting it loose, not making much of an impression. Dwayne Nitz is more bewildered than feral as Curly, the short farmhand whom Lennie mangles and who’s deathly afraid of being cuckolded. And Maggie Lacey, who plays Curly’s Wife, needs a lot more smoldering Barbara Stanwyck in her to explain why the men treat her like an infection. The play’s sexual economy is invested in her as temptress, but Lacey’s girlish chattiness is a turnoff. Only Marty Lodge as Carlson brings a leering confidence that speeds things up a click or two.

What shocked 1937 audiences in Of Mice and Men (its vulgarity, its cynicism about the American dream) today feels overfamiliar and even inevitable. But when George urges Lennie to look to the horizon for their dream farm and then puts a gun to his pal’s head in the final scene, it brings the play’s quintessentially American themes—violence and dreaming and the City on the Hill—into breathtaking focus. Arena’s mounting meets the challenge—Ilona Somogyi’s costumes and their gorgeous tones of desert and dust; Riccardo Hernandez’s stark set of planks and bunks in a row, suggesting the narrow furrows these characters’ plow. Indeed, the most exciting moment of the evening is a set change early on, when the cast deploys the bunkhouse in 60 seconds of furious cruelty and precision. It’s an energy that’s missing from the rest of Arena’s production, and the result is a play that’s competent instead of electrifying. CP