In a play suffuse with tragedy, Chris O’Dowd and James Franco delight with their emotional connection.
It’s not easy making friends. But once you become co-dependent, it’s even harder to part. Such is the circumstance of Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), a mentally challenged laborer who doesn’t know his own strength, and George (James Franco), a small but ambitious migrant worker who has taken care of Lennie for longer than he can admit. When the curtain rises on a setting sun over an upstage stream, O’Dowd’s Lennie collapses at it, shovels his hands in and drinks. Franco’s George, erring a little closer to anger than frustration and weariness, berates him – the water is too dirty, too still, how much he could accomplish if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Lennie knows what to say to calm George down – he threatens to leave. George knows what to say to make him stay. It’s clear they’ve done this before.
A skeptic would say they have been for almost 80 years. When Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men in 1937 it appeared on Broadway only months later, with a film appearing within a year. It has been adapted, revived, and parodied countless times that there’s likely no one of age in the United States who isn’t familiar, whether through Gary Sinise or Bugs Bunny, with these characters’ rapport. Indeed, the play’s emotional impact depends almost solely on it.
And yet, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the characters’ familiarity in this revival for the actors’, but the April 16th opening was the official Broadway debut of both O’Dowd (whose films include The Sapphires and Bridesmaids) and Franco (127 Hours, This Is the End). Though the duo hadn’t met prior to the initial readings of the script only a few months ago, so natural is the pacing of their dialogue, so unforced their physicality with each other, and so delightable is O’Dowd’s Lennie that the pair might just as well have been walking through rural California for 77 years.
Also debuting on Broadway is Leighton Meester, acclaimed for portraying the love-troubled and beautiful Blair Waldorf on “Gossip Girl.” Meester convincingly sheds the bombshell status of her former role to transform the part of Curley’s wife, the sole, unnamed, female character in the play, from a sultry floozy into a tragic temptation brought on by her own loneliness.
It’s clear that Franco and O’Dowd have a comfortable chemistry from the beginning of the play, but it is not until the pair enter the ranch’s bunkhouse (a beautifully detailed set designed by Todd Rosenthal) that it really shines, buffeted by a strong supporting cast. Where O’Dowd tender and delicate physicality convey his affection for George best when the two share dialogue, Franco is most convincing of his connection of Lennie when he is talking to the other ranch hands.
It is here too that director Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) teases out the best comedic moments of the play that only make you feel worse for laughing at them. But it is here too that the ranch hands – Slim (a stand-out performance by Jim Parrack), Candy (Tony Award winner Jim Norton), Curley (Alex Morf), and Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) – all test George’s devotion in symbolic ways, so that even if we’re not sure Franco loves Lennie, we’re certain he’ll fight to stay with him.
Steinbeck’s novella vaults us into a world that is skeptical of close connection and privileges utility and fast money over companionship and emotional depth. It would be easy enough to brush off this revival as yet another big-name-powered production cashing in on the heartthrob/starlet status of Franco, O’Dowd, and Meester in the Broadway Industrial Complex. But what Shapiro and the ensemble have put on stage diminishes the marquee names in lieu of a faithful and worthy telling of a tragic American classic – no matter how much you’ve prepared for it, the gun at the end is still a shot through the heart.
Of Mice and Men
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; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; associate producers, Mark Berger and Matthew Masten; production stage manager, Jane Grey; company manager, Bobby Driggers; executive producer, 101 Productions. Presented by David Binder, Kate Lear, Darren Bagert, Adam Zotovich, Latitude Link/Piedmont Productions, Raise the Roof, Paula Marie Black, Marc Turtletaub, Ruth Hendel/Barbara Whitman, Marianne Mills/Jayne Baron Sherman, Martin Massman, Judy Kent/Wendy Knudsen, Kevin Niu, Michael Watt and the Shubert Organization. At the Longacre Theater, 220 West 48th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through July 27. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: 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).