by Ron Cohen · April 18, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #75 Ron Cohen looks at Of Mice and Men, playing at the Longacre Theatre At this point in time, Of Mice and Men hardly needs further validation as a classic American drama. This 1937 play by John Steinbeck, based on his novella of the same name, is marked by a an authentic social conscience and compelling poetic insight into the human condition. And its subject matter resonates today, as it looks at California’s migrant farm workers of the Great Depression-wracked 1930s.
Over the years, the play has had two Broadway productions and at least one Off-Broadway. The story has also been adapted into two theatrical films and two television versions. Still, it’s gratifying and thrilling to see the increasingly commercial gods of Broadway get together to give a venerable American drama of this caliber (one that isn’t by Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller) a first-rate, attention-getting mounting. And they’ve done it with a cast that undoubtedly is going to pull audiences and perhaps even expose some for the first time to the power of this play.
So, I suppose we have to thank the multitasking movie star James Franco for his decision to make his Broadway debut in Of Mice and Men, abetted by a company that includes such potential marquee names as the Irish comic Chris O’Dowd, who gained fandom from appearances in such films as Bridesmaids and The Sapphires, and Leighton Meester, known for her work on the TV hit Gossip Girl.
For the most part, they do not disappoint.
Franco gives a magnetic performance as George, an instinctively smart survivor, whose real life’s work is the care and protection of his childhood friend, the preternaturally strong but feeble-minded Lennie, a well-meaning soul whose proclivity for petting soft things -- velvet, mice and more -- makes him dangerous. Their dream, fostered by George’s repeated and somewhat rhapsodic telling, is to finally get together a small stake and buy their own place, where they can escape the day-to-day brutality of working under unfeeling bosses.
Franco gives a magnetic performance, but it‘s by no means a star turn. It is totally in tune with the material and his fellow actors, and he lets us see and feel that his relationship with Lennie is more than a burden: it fulfills George as a human being, warding off his own germane sense of loneliness. Furthermore, his demeanor -- a determinedly confident exterior over a mind riddled with uncertainty -- informs the play’s milieu, well painted under the smart directorial hand of Anne D. Shapiro. Her trust in the script is implicit, and she lets it make it points clearly and affectingly without distracting directorial flourishes. It’s an unfussy clarity that’s also evident in the scenic design by Todd Rosenthal and the lighting by Japhy Weideman, along with Suttirat Larlarb’s costumes.
As Lennie, O’Dowd imbues the man with a ready laugh and a sweetness of nature along with a delicacy of gesture, that makes the underlying threat even more formidable, even surprising when it breaks into the open.
In the somewhat problematic role of Curley‘s wife, the unhappy but flirty spouse of the boss’s son, Leighton Meester delivers a portrayal that seems a bit on the surface at first, although she finally gains sympathy for the woman’s plight. There are standout characterizations elsewhere in the cast: Jim Norton as the aged farmhand Candy, who desperately wants to share in George and Lennie’s dream of a place of their own; Ron Cephas Jones as the African-American hand, Crooks, who suffers another kind of loneliness, stemming from racism; Alex More as the hot-headed Curley, and Jim Parrack as Slim, an empathetic muleskinner. .
If I can carp about anything, it’s that there were times when I felt Shapiro in a commitment to pacing was rushing over some of the deeper levels of the script, most notably, in the play’s tragic conclusion. It’s indeed harrowing, but not overwhelmingly so. I missed the classic tragic sense of the preordained heightened by human pain that can come with the final blackout. Perhaps, this will deepen as the run continues. Meanwhile, I’m happy just to see the title Of Mice and Men up on a Broadway marquee. It’s not all spangles and sawdust out there on the Gay White Way.