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Of Mice and Men

Not seen on Broadway since 1975 (but seen twice Off Broadway in the interval since then), Steinbeck's play, Of Mice and Men, has become an American classic. Its themes of friendship, cruelty, dreams, racism, ageism, and integrity stamp this as a universal story.

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Chris O’Dowd and James Franco

in a scene from Of Mice and Men

(Photo credit: Richard Phibbs)

 

The story of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-into-play, Of Mice and Men is well known by the many who read it in high school English, but it is Irish actor Chris O’Dowd making his Broadway debut as the mentally challenged Lennie that makes this revival a must-see. For those who know him from his role in the film comedy Bridesmaids, he is totally unrecognizable with shaven head, full beard, and his left hand which seems permanently turned in towards his body. At six-foot-four, O’Dowd is a hulking figure and a powerful presence.

 

The nominal star, the multitasking James Franco also making his Broadway debut as his fellow field hand George gives a sturdy performance but one that is nowhere as nuanced as O’Dowd. Director Anna D. Shapiro has backed them up with a fine supporting cast and the evening has three moments of pure theater witchcraft that make this worth the price of admission. An inspired production team adds both verisimilitude as well as poetry to the revival on the stage of the Longacre Theatre.

 

Steinbeck’s depression era story concerns the failure of the American dream and depicts it as a kind of paradise lost. Smart as a whip George and strong as a bull Lennie, a child in a giant’s body, migrant field hands, travel around California’s farms and ranches to pick up work. Having grown up together, George has promised Lennie’s Aunt Clara before she died to look after Lennie as he is incapable of looking after himself and it is more companionable to travel around with a friend than alone. They have a dream that keeps them going: to own a little piece of land with a farm of their own. Child-like Lennie who likes to stroke soft things is looking forward to tending the furry rabbits, strong enough to withstand his petting which always seems to kill the mice he tries to collect for this purpose. Lennie is entirely unaware of his own strength, and when he is frightened, he holds on for dear life.

 

George and Lennie come to a ranch in the Salinas valley to work bucking barley (that is, throwing bails on a truck). In the all-male world of the bunkhouse they meet a microcosm of America: Candy, an old ranch hand who has been injured and worries that he will lose his job; The Boss, seemingly fair but with the entire responsibility of the ranch on his shoulders; his son Curley, a short man with a Napoleon complex and a short fuse, recently married and who doesn’t trust his new lady (known only as Curley’s wife) to stay away from the men; Crooks, the African American stable hand who is nicknamed for his deformed back; Carlson, a large, jolly ranch hand with little compassion for others; and Slim; a “jerk-line skinner” (i.e. the highly respected driver of a mule team) and the moral center of the group.

 


 

Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester

in a scene from Of Mice and Men

(Photo credit: Richard Phibbs)

 

Although George has told Lennie to let him do all the talking for the two of them, this does not seem to be possible. Curley takes an instant dislike to the big guy and George sees trouble coming. When Candy’s old blind dog is killed to put him out of his misery, Lennie reveals their plans of a place of their own and Candy asks to come in with them, bringing the reality of their dream somewhat closer. But Curley’s bored wife is continually coming into the bunkhouse looking for someone to talk to while Curley keeps chasing after her trying to catch her and the hands in a compromising position. George and Lennie may be living off of “the fat of the land,” but as they will find this is no Eden. All the elements for tragedy on the level of the ancient Greeks are present in this quintessential American story.

 

Shapiro, who won her Tony Award for directing the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County, has created three moments of tension that make your heart stop: as we await the gun shot when Carlson goes out to shoot Candy’s beloved dog, Lennie’s scene alone in the barn with Curley’s wife, fraught with danger, and the final moments of the play when George is called upon to do what needs to be done, but which he dreads carrying out. Japhy Weideman’s lighting is memorable both in the poetic looking scenes on the banks of the Salinas River surrounded by mountains as well as the scene in the barn with its single source of light. The realistic scenery by Todd Rosenthal brings this all-male domain into clear focus as well as showing the characters dwarfed by the huge scale of the sets. Suttirat Larlarb’s costumes not only are appropriate to the 1930’s time period but have that curiously lived-in look that fools the audience into believing that they are not costumes at all.

 

As an actor, O’Dowd has completely disappeared into Lennie. Watch how he cowers in the corner giving sidelong glances to the people he knows he must avoid. Never once does he forget to stand hunched, over masking his great height, or to keep his left arm twisted into a painful looking position into his chest. Franco, on the other hand, gives a leading man performance as George, commanding and forceful but never digging very deeply into the character. As old Candy, Jim Norton, so often associated with the Irish plays of Conor McPherson (The Night Alive, The Seafarer, Dublin Carol, Port Authority, The Weir), creates much pathos with his voice which always seems to be overflowing with emotion.

 


 

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd

in a scene from Of Mice and Men

(Photo credit: Richard Phibbs)

 

As the African American hand banished to the stable, Ron Cephas Jones alternates movingly between bitterness with his lot and his desperate loneliness. Jim Parrack brings a great sense of fairness and moral integrity to the role of Slim, the only member of this tight, little community to whom they all instinctively look up to. Receiving third billing, Leighton Meester (star of television’s Gossip Girl) as Curley’s wife, the only woman in the play in this man’s world, is caught in the trap of playing either Madonna or whore, typical of 1930’s Hollywood movies. She has taken a sort of middle road by playing her as a flirt who means well. Stout Joel Marsh Garland makes Carlson, the ranch hand who insists on getting rid of Candy’s dog, into a portrait of the merciless bystander. Alex Morf’s Curley is one of those people whose own unhappiness and disappointment in life causes them to do harm to others, even if unwittingly.

 

Not seen on Broadway since 1975 (but seen twice Off Broadway in the interval since then), Steinbeck’s play, Of Mice and Men, has become an American classic. Its themes of friendship, cruelty, dreams, racism, ageism, and integrity stamp this as a universal story. The aura of poverty and the dealing with poverty make this play very timely as many people continue to cope with economic difficulties caused by our continuing recession. Anna D. Shapiro’s robust production offers good, solid performances by a cast led by James Franco and one extraordinary one by Chris O’Dowd. Go see it – you will not be disappointed.

 

Of Mice and Men (through July 27, 2014)

Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ofmiceandmenonbroadway.com

Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with one intermission


Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (708 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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