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Of Vice and Men 

Brilliant acting brings the characters of Steinbeck's Cannery Row alive

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
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"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise ...," as John Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row, and Steinbeck (from California) makes a point of examining this little neighborhood with a sense of humor and an awe that sometimes works beautifully and sometimes cloys. Word for Word has produced the first seven chapters of the book as a play, to celebrate the centennial of Steinbeck's birth, and the results are just as teeming, overwrought, and quirky as the novel itself.

Word for Word mounts fiction without a single edit, meaning the actors have to say every word, no matter how disposable. For obvious reasons, the company tends to mount short stories, but Cannery Row, Chapters 1-7 marks its second attempt at part of a novel. Last year's Oil! -- a production of the first chapter of Upton Sinclair's novel -- was a brilliant, surprising success. Both Oil! and Cannery Row belong to Word for Word's "Opening the Book" series, which is supposed to encourage audiences to go out and read the book in question.

The thing is, most people in San Francisco have read Cannery Row. They'll come to the show as critics, not as inductees, and Word for Word will (of course) give them something besides their pet notions of the book. Director Sandra Langsner Crews seems aware of this problem. She tries to solve it, in part by letting her actors mouth familiar phrases in a reverent tone that seems to celebrate Everyone's Favorite Steinbeck Novel -- and when she does the show falls flat. (Mark Phillips delivers those opening lines, for example, in a false, declaiming voice.) More often, happily, she ignores the overexposure dilemma and concentrates on bringing the novel to life.

The first seven chapters of Cannery Row introduce a crowd of bindlestiffs known as Mack and the boys, a grocer named Lee Chong, Doc the biologist, and a stable of prostitutes managed by the worldly, rusty-voiced Dora Flood. Chong acquires a smelly storage building in exchange for some grocery debts, and Mack and the boys move in, rent-free, to "keep up the property." ("Place might burn down if somebody don't keep an eye on it," says Mack, who has the instincts of a Mafia boss.) Doc pays a bum named Hazel to collect marine specimens in the local tide pools, and Mack and the boys feel generous toward Doc. They resolve to throw a party for him sometime.

That's it. Chapters 1-7 are all exposition, but they overflow with action compared to the first chapter of Oil!. The only reason Cannery Row doesn't work as well onstage is that Langsner Crews hasn't found a way to make her excerpt serve as a self-contained thumbnail of the entire novel. The audience comes to the end of Chapter 7 wanting more, even though the play lasts nearly 2 1/2 hours.

The reason they want more is the brilliant cast. Brian Keith Russell is broad-smiling and expansive as Mack, in a dusty old suit; Mack's the comic center of the show, and Russell handles the role with an easy grace. Mark Phillips is also strong as one of the drunks, Hughie, but loses focus when he sobers up to play Doc (over-reverently). Patricia Silver plays the wise, makeup-heavy madam Dora with a satisfying mixture of irony and pathos, and Matthew Chavez is appealing as Hazel, searching for starfish. John Shin also has the perfect natural accent to play Chong, although sometimes his pacing is off.

The most surprising and moving parts of the production, though, belong to Andrew Hurteau, who plays a lonesome watchman at Dora's named William. He's a minor character in the book, but a highlight of the play. William has no friends in Cannery Row, but thinks Mack and the boys lead an enviable life, and he tries to join them. He brings them a pint of whiskey. Mack and the boys accept the drink but can't stand William, and they send him off with an insult. "Now William's heart broke," narrates Hurteau in a quavering voice. "The bums would not receive him, socially." So he retreats to Dora's to commit suicide in front of a Greek cook, with an ice pick. "As soon as he saw ... the Greek's eyes, William knew he had to do it," says Hurteau, again in a light, thin voice that vibrates with unstable feeling. "He was sad, because now it seemed silly."

I've seen Hurteau play wild, manic characters who burst on- and offstage like electrical storms, but I've never seen him try to do ordinary suffering, and the results here are so good I'd like to see him onstage more often. His poker-faced sense of the absurd only adds to the richness of any character he plays, no matter how calm or subdued.

Cannery Row may disappoint Word for Word loyalists who are still high from the effects of this summer's Stories by Tobias Wolff. Wolff set a lofty standard for fiction-theater that Cannery Row can't reach. These seven chapters have too much description, and Steinbeck indulges in too much cosmic musing -- especially in Chapter 2 -- about the beauty of weedy lots and junk heaps and homeless drunks. If Langsner Crews had done just a little editing, you hear people say, she might have had a great show; instead, she has a pretty good one. I agree. I would have forgiven her for cutting. But Word for Word is an ongoing experiment in verbatim-fiction theater, and Cannery Row still yields a few lively and colorful specimens.

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