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stage dive

Theater Review: The James Franco Project Continues, With Of Mice and Men

Chris O'Dowd and James Franco in Of Mice and Men.

Just three months after its publication in book form in February 1937, Of Mice and Men was staged in San Francisco. This was unusual but not unauthorized: Steinbeck had deliberately written the tale, which he called “a kind of playable novel,” in dialogue that could be enacted “as it stands.” He was right: It stood then and it stands up now, as the new Broadway production starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd as the odd-couple bindlestiffs proves. 

The story is narrow; unlike Steinbeck’s panoptic portraits of the misery of California laborers in works such as Tortilla Flat and In Dubious Battle, it does not engage, except by implication, the larger sociopolitical forces at play. Of Mice and Men sticks to the scale its title implies. Only two characters are fully realized: the itinerant ranch hands Lennie and George. Lennie is large, and softheaded, and of no more consequence in the world than the rabbits and pups he dreams about owning; George is wiry and wary and destined for a fall. And though there are eight other characters — bunkmates, bosses, and the woman called Curley’s Wife — the tragedy of the story depends almost entirely on how deeply Lennie and George are rendered as people whose lives, however hardscrabble, are worthy of mourning.

Lennie is the showier role, and O’Dowd, in his Broadway debut, does not waste its opportunities. (Who knew from his appearances on Girls and in Bridesmaids he could be so masterful?) If he looks somewhat contemporary with his shaved head and bushy beard — is he a coffee-roaster from Bushwick? — that turns out to be useful in securing the audience’s acceptance. Not that he shies away from the stock gestures necessary to suggest Lennie’s mental impairment: His left hand constantly twists and flutters as if trying to explain things his brain cannot. His speech is thick and labored. Yet at the same time O’Dowd normalizes Lennie with a degree of humor and self-consciousness that’s disarming. When he gets George to retell his favorite old stories, especially the one about the property they will one day own together, O’Dowd responds with the goofy delight of a child surprised by a chocolate. 

George has no such ingratiations to offer the audience, except the complicated love for his friend. As a result, Franco, a better actor than his meta-shenanigans sometimes suggest, gets off to a shaky start. Arriving to take up a new job on another new ranch, he is nothing but angry: Once again, Lennie, however unintentionally, has gotten them into trouble and forced them to run. Franco shouts and scowls well, but there’s a disconnection between the requirements of the text and what we can see of his interior life, perhaps because we can see so little. (This is to some degree the fault of the “playable novel,” which abjures all unspoken explanations.) Later though, as George becomes more protective and unselfish, Franco not only aligns himself with the part but justifies his star casting. The ambiguity of the bond between Lennie and George — a bond regarded by other characters with suspicion or approval — is well served by the ambiguity Franco bears with him always, like a perfume.    

The result is more nuanced than tragedies played with uniform heaviness throughout, as if the end were the beginning. Here, the director Anna D. Shapiro beautifully shapes and calibrates the tone to produce through a series of contrasts a sense of downward momentum. Her staging keeps you aware at all times of what’s going on beyond your vision: the old dog about to be shot while the laborers deal a hand of canasta, the horseshoes clanging outside the barn while the heart of the disaster unfolds. Likewise, the ensemble is drawn with vivid highlights and deep shadows. Jim Norton as Candy (who has lost his hand in an accident), Ron Cephas Jones as Crooks (the bookish black stableman), and especially Jim Parrack as Slim (the naturally noble muleskinner) are excellent in the larger supporting roles. And Leighton Meester, late of Gossip Girl, brings unexpected dignity (and stage chops) to Curley’s Wife, who despite not even having her own name is the Woman Who Causes the Trouble.

But of course it’s really the world that causes the trouble. The masterful set design by Todd Rosenthal (hauntingly lit by Japhy Weideman) gives us exteriors that are almost geological in their crushing indifference to human life, and interiors that suggest the same about capitalism. (The hands sleep in a bunkhouse that’s basically a big chicken coop.) Of Mice and Men has become a classic because it is accessible on both of those levels: It’s a personal tragedy and, just behind that, a social tragedy. Indeed, my only objection to the stage adaptation is that it ends instantaneously upon the violent climax, thus resolving one story but not the other. The novella continues a beat longer, returning the narrative to a more neutral plane and restoring readers to a consideration of its values. 

Among those values is a faith in the demotic that has made Of Mice and Men both a perennial high school text (it’s short and easy to read) and a perennial object of censors (there are lots of hells and damns). But its deeper appeal, and danger, are existential. They may not know it, but Lennie and George, along with Candy and Crooks and Curley’s Wife, are linked in what the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw calls “the circle of loneliness,” imposed from both within and without. Steinbeck undermines the dangerous story of American self-sufficiency by offering such pitiful characters his respect; he’d been one of them. (Of Mice and Men was suggested by an incident he’d witnessed while working as a bindlestiff in the early 20s: a big, feebleminded migrant laborer killed the foreman with a pitchfork.) He knew the territory, and he knew the country. It’s no accident that he set his most personal work “a few miles south of Soledad”: Spanish for solitude. 

Of Mice and Men is at the Longacre Theatre through July 27.

Photo: Richard Phibbs