Of Mice and Men: Theater Review

Of Mice and Men Franco O’Dowd Play - H 2014
Richard Phibbs

Of Mice and Men Franco O’Dowd Play - H 2014

Director Anna D. Shapiro's deeply respectful take on the 1937 play is gripping, grounded and emotionally penetrating.

James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton star in the Broadway revival of John Steinbeck's classic tale of ill-fated dreamers in Depression-era California.

NEW YORK – There's a special attachment to great books first encountered in high school that stays with readers throughout their lives, and John Steinbeck's tender tragedy Of Mice and Men is up there with the most cherished of them. The headline news in this stirring Broadway remount is the stage debut of peripatetic artistic adventurer James Franco opposite the wonderful Chris O'Dowd as itinerant ranch workers George and Lennie. But the real satisfaction comes from those unforgettable characters, their joy and wrenching sorrow, and the enduring power of their story of friendship sustained by illusory dreams in a world of solitude.

PHOTOS: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd Make Their Broadway Debuts in 'Of Mice and Men'

Lovingly evoked by director Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County), a superb design team and a finely tuned ensemble cast, that world is rural California in the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, when an entire class was uprooted, yearning for a home. Steinbeck's sturdy dramatization of his classic 1937 novel is rich in rustic atmosphere, flavorful vernacular, pervasive melancholy, harshness and human compassion. Its every development is mapped out via careful foreshadowing, in particular the story's harrowing turns. And while most of the audience surely knows what's coming, it's remarkable to sit in a theater and experience the collective intake of breath as tragedy approaches.

Like many works of its time, this is a patriarchal story, built around the central theme of male friendship. Not only does the one female spell TROUBLE, setting off the territoriality and animosity of the men around her, she doesn't even have a name. That makes it an interesting choice for a woman director; Shapiro brings a probing but delicate touch, and a sensitivity that extends to all the key characters.

Franco's taste for literary Americana is evident in his choice of filmmaking projects as director, from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury to Cormac McCarthy's Child of God. So his affinity for Steinbeck is no surprise. If he's not quite a natural onstage, registering as an actor more accustomed to transmitting nuances of feeling to a camera, he brings warmth and understated manliness to George in a performance that grows more assured as the play progresses. Most crucially, Franco has beautiful chemistry with O'Dowd. Even when he's bristling over the burden of his hulking, simple-minded friend, and the easy life he could be leading if he were unencumbered, it's clear that protective George needs Lennie's companionship as much as Lennie needs his.

The prototype for the gentle giant in so many stories since Steinbeck, Lennie is a brawny worker who doesn't know his own strength. His compulsion to stroke soft things -- a mouse, a puppy, a woman's dress or hair -- is an accident waiting to happen, demanding constant vigilance from George.

STORY: 'Of Mice and Men': Dressing James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Depression-Era Denim

Best known in the U.S. for his roles in Bridesmaids and Girls (and to the smaller cult following that stumbled across his inspired Brit comedy series, The IT Crowd), Irish actor O'Dowd is tremendous in a part that could easily stray into mawkish territory. His Lennie is a trusting innocent, clinging to the rituals of his life with George. Like a child with a beloved bedtime story, he begs repeatedly to hear George outline their shared dream of owning a small farm, where they can "live off the fat of the land." Even the familiar words of George's scolding when he messes up are to some degree soothing to Lennie.

Padded out by costumer Suttirat Larlarb (a frequent Danny Boyle collaborator) in denim overalls that could almost be an extra-large Baby Gap romper, O'Dowd cowers in doorways or behind beds in the ranch hands' bunkhouse. Lennie struggles to keep up with conversations that sail over his head, seizing on key words for illumination. But he shrinks back in fear whenever anyone but George so much as glances his way. It's a lovely performance -- sweet, funny and ultimately heartbreaking.

Taking his cue from writing loaded with descriptive symbolism, Todd Rosenthal, Shapiro's regular designer, has created gorgeous settings, some stylized and some more naturalistic, burnished by the fine work of rising lighting star Japhy Weideman. The first stage picture is the riverbank that provides sanctuary for George and Lennie, with its backdrop of parched earth broken by a crack of sunburned sky. The corrugated iron framing columns later transform into the bunkhouse, a grimy, rusted shack with minimal comforts; the barn, with hay bales stacked in the shadow of a menacing mechanical claw and hanging chains; and the cluttered shed that houses the black stable hand Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones), unwelcome in the white workers' quarters.

Shapiro treats Steinbeck's dusty yet honest sentimentality with integrity, and her casting down to the smallest roles is sterling. The most invaluable support comes from Jim Norton's shattering Candy, the doddery farmhand disabled in an accident, who all too clearly sees his own future going the way of his toothless old mutt. Watching Candy's face dissolve from grief into radiant hope as he buys into George's and Lennie's dream scheme is among the play's most affecting moments.

VIDEO: James Franco Finds Broadway Debut 'Of Mice and Men' 'Refreshing'

Jim Parrack (a True Blood regular who worked with Franco in Child of God and As I Lay Dying) has an appealing, rangy presence as Slim, the handsome muleskinner whose decency sets him apart. Jones masterfully shows how easily Crooks' bitterness is pierced by hope. Alex Morf makes the ranch superintendent's antsy son Curly a dangerously stupid man, crippled by his Napoleon complex. And Leighton Meester is lovely in her Broadway debut as Curly's pretty wife. A sad, flighty figure, she still fantasizes about movie stardom after walking into an ill-considered marriage, seeking attention in the wrong places.

Wrapping each scene in David Singer's folksy guitar and banjo music, this revival delivers the theatrical equivalent of sitting down with a dog-eared copy of a favorite novel.

Venue: Longacre Theatre, New York (runs through July 27)
Cast: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester, Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Playwright: John Steinbeck
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Suttirat Larlarb
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Music: David Singer
Sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Fight director: Thomas Schall
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, in association with the Shubert Organization