There are more unemployed Americans now than there were when “Of Mice and Men” debuted on Broadway in 1937, making its third-ever production on Broadway something more than just an excuse to debate the performance of the multitalented, multitasking James Franco in his Broadway debut. Some, oddly, seem to dismiss the relevance of John Steinbeck’s work because it’s assigned regularly in high school, or because its two main characters, the itinerant, homeless farm workers George and Lennie, have become such familiar figures in our culture.
There is no denying that some elements of the play are an alienating reminder of outmoded values from the past, and other aspects seem not so much outdated as clunky or strange. But there is still power in this look at a desperate era, last seen on Broadway 40 years ago. Director Anna D. Shapiro has assembled a splendid design team and a competent 10-member cast, with a surprising, stand-out performance by Chris O’Dowd as Lennie.
We first see Lennie and his far smarter friend and protector George (Franco) out in the sandy bank of the Salinas River, with a spectacular setting sun (courtesy of lighting designer Japhy Weideman), that is somehow hemmed in both above and below by overhanging rock — the first of the solid sets by Todd Rosenthal that are both evocative and symbolic.
O’Dowd is impressively transformed – unrecognizable — as Lennie, a hulking giant of a man, mentally disabled, who doesn’t know his own strength; the two men are on the road again, in effect on the lam, because of his child-like attraction to beautiful things. As George later explains: “Dumb bastard like he is he wants to touch everything he likes. Jest wants to feel of it. So he reaches out to feel this red dress” – except a young woman was wearing it. It is a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come after they arrive at the ranch where they’ve been newly hired as hands.
George and Lennie have been friends since childhood, and their friendship is remarked upon as something unusual by nearly every other character in the play – as if Steinbeck were saying that isolation and loneliness are standard in tough times.
The hands “never seem to give a damn about nobody,” says Slim (Jim Parrack.)
The two friends share a dream – to get a little land of their own.
Crooks, one of the other ranch hands, at first dismisses it bitterly: “Everybody wants a little piece of land. Nobody gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.” But then he too wants in on their dream. Ron Cephas Jones is spot-on in his portrayal of Crooks, a resentful African-American man who is banned from the bunkhouse because of his race.
The attitude of the play towards Crooks is far less problematic for modern sensibilities than that towards Curley’s wife, credibly portrayed by Leighton Meester, best-known as the star of Gossip Girl. She, like Franco and O’Dowd, is making her Broadway debut. George and most of the other ranch hands at various times call her a bitch, a tart, and a tramp – which could be Steinbeck’s comment on the attitudes of George and the other men, except the woman is not even given a name: She’s just “Curley’s Wife.” Whatever the playwright’s intention, the director and the actress have chosen, wisely I think, to tilt us towards thinking the men all sexist by playing down the character’s sexuality.
The key to appreciating “Of Mice and Men” is in focusing on each individual character, and seeing how they illustrate the meaning behind the play’s title, which derives from a Scottish poem by Robert Burns in 1785:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley [often go wrong]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Jim Norton is touching as old man Candy who lost a hand in an accident and now feels as ancient and useless as his dog, who was once a great sheepherder, but now stinks so badly the other hands want to shoot him. His predicament recalls
the popular song from the 1930’s:
Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
There might be something incongruous in the role of humorless, impatient George being taken on by the hip, mischievous actor James Franco — a star of the cult TV show Freaks and Geeks; of films as diverse as Milk , the Spider-Man franchise, 127 Hours, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and the star as well of many art projects and clever/misbegotten Instagrams. His performance in “Of Mice and Men” is ultimately disappointing; in the climactic scenes, he exhibits a screen presence, centered on stoic facial expressions, when what’s called for is a formidable stage presence: We need to see his entire body expressing the emotion of the moment. But this amounts to little more than a quibble for two reasons. His natural magnetism fits the character for the bulk of the play. And it is surely thanks to him and his adventurous spirit that this new worthwhile production of “Of Mice and Men” exists at all.
Of Mice and Men
At the Longacre Theater
By John Steinbeck; directed by Anna D. Shapiro; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Suttirat Larlarb; lighting by Japhy Weidman; sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; music by David Singer; fight direction by Thomas Schall; hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe.
Cast: James Franco (George), Chris O’Dowd (Lennie), Leighton Meester (Curley’s Wife), Ron Cephas Jones (Crooks), Alex Morf (Curley), Joel Marsh Garland (Carlson), James McMenamin (Whit), Jim Ortlieb (the Boss), Jim Parrack (Slim) and Jim Norton (Candy).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $37.00 – $147.00
“Of Mice and Men” is scheduled to run until July 27, 2014