Steinbeck’s well loved novella/play has not been seen on Broadway in 40 years and it makes a welcome return especially in the very reliable hands of director Anna D. Shapiro and her two stars, Chris O’Dowd and, man of the moment, James Franco, who play Lennie and George.
This production officially opens on April 16th so understand this review is written from a preview performance. The story is of two itinerant workers on the move through the Salinas Valley of California during the Depression looking for work and dreaming of a better life. The only comfort they have is each other’s friendship.
The scenic design by Todd Rosenthal is a highlight. A wonderful wood floor with wide planks travelling diagonally across the stage was complemented by excellent detail in the interiors of the bunkhouse, the barn and also Crooks’ room. The riverbed was represented by an opening in the downstage planks where water flowed.
I have admired James Franco’s professional achievements to date, especially considering his age, but this latest venture onto the stage needs a little more refining if he is to do justice to the character of George in Steinbeck’s time-honoured tale. This is more noticeable considering his supporting cast performed beautifully, bringing well-defined characters with the gritty realism needed to the fore.
It is one thing to play George as a detached man and it is certainly a safe and appropriate motivation for an actor. George has learnt detachment to cope with the unrelenting loneliness in his life. He keeps a safe detachment from his friend Lennie who is difficult to communicate with owing to this limited intellectual capacity. Franco does this well but what I missed are George’s emotions that do burble and sometimes bark in key scenes.
We understand he does use Lennie for companionship but this bond was not conveyed strongly enough throughout the piece and did not set up the incredibly brave and extraordinary event that occurs at the conclusion of the play. Franco also needs more voice on stage. Too often, at any point on the stage, whether he was leaning against the bunk beds or resting at table and chairs, his lines are not audible enough.
O’Dowd’s Lennie had all the right ingredients. His comic timing was perfect in delivering such classic lines as “Ain’t a thing in my pocket,” (referring to his fondling of the pet pup) and “Tell about the rabbits George!” His tall frame and large hands were quintessential Lennie. What the character was unable to say, O’Dowd certainly said it with subtle body language. He did not go into dangerous territory of milking the laughs or overplaying Lennie’s intriguing mind. O’Dowd’s Lennie was endearing and playful but showed his tremendous physical strength and, when things got heated, his unmeasured temperament.
Jim Norton’s Candy was exquisitely played. The shooting of the dog scene had the audience totally silent as we watched Candy’s sadness. Ron Cephas Jones played Crooks unsentimentally and definitely conveyed the racist attitudes that abound during the time. Leighton Meester, of Gossip Girl fame, was a suitably annoying and pretty Curley’s Wife, and managed to convey her loneliness and ensure the audience sympathise with her. Jim Parrack’s Slim was the perfect bridge between understanding the ways of regular ranch life with the unusual lives of Lennie and George. His empathy for the two was heartfelt.
This production is a strong ensemble performance capturing the essence of Steinbeck’s classic novel beautifully.
Of Mice and Men. A play by John Steinbeck
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York City
Reviewed on: April 11th 2014. Photo Credit: Richard Phibb