Friends on and off the stage

New York State Theater Institute founder Patricia Snyder had a question for John Romeo.

After more than 25 years with the theater, were there any roles Romeo still yearned to play?

Actually, he said, there was. He had always wanted to be Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

"It's one of the best roles in contemporary theater," he said.

Romeo gets his wish Friday, Oct. 31, when the curtain rises on NYSTI's production of "Of Mice and Men," John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning story of friendship set in Depression-era California. Romeo's character is a simple-minded gentle giant; David Bunce plays George, a fellow ranch hand who acts as Lennie's de facto caretaker.

There are plenty of laughs in the beginning, director Ed Lange said. But at its core, he said, "Of Mice and Men" is a tragedy: Lenny accidentally kills a woman while trying to stroke her hair, and George, wanting to spare Lenny from a vengeful lynch mob, shoots him in the back of the head.

In most roles, actors get to show how smart they are, Romeo said. In this one, though, his job is to give an understated performance, without reducing Lennie to a "caricature."

"It works so against your natural actor instincts," he said.

That challenge was one of the reasons he'd always wanted to tackle the role of Lennie. Another was his respect for Steinbeck's story.

"The ideas are complex," Romeo said. "It's very deep and very complex. It says so much about society, men, and life in the '20s and '30s."

For Bunce, what sticks out most about the story is the relationship between George and Lennie.

"It's such an incredible story of friendship," he said. It might seem that Lennie is a burden, but "I think George gets as much out of it as Lennie does. I think it's a very symbiotic relationship."

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