By: David Sheward
Okay, we all know that James Franco can do just about anything well-star and direct movies, write novels, act on a soap opera, study Romantic literature in grad school, host the Oscars (well, maybe not that last one so well). Franco can now add Broadway debut to this eclectic list of accomplishments, and he wisely chose not to make it in a flashy star vehicle like, say, Hamlet. Instead, he’s a part of a nearly seamless ensemble in a sterling production of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s American classic of loneliness during the Great Depression.
Derived from Steinbeck’s novella, Mice premiered on Broadway in 1937 and its misfit migrant-worker heroes-the clever and compassionate George and his mentally challenged but colossally strong companion Lennie-entered the mythos of popular culture. Not only is the book a staple of middle-school English classes, but the images of the mismatched pair spinning tales of owning their own place and tending to the soft rabbits Lennie loves has permeated into our mindhive thanks to innumerable parodies in comedy sketches and Warner Bros. cartoons. Director Anna D. Shapiro returns this tale of friendship amid economic deprivation to its roots, emphasizing that this is a story of disconnected people seeking a home.
George and Lennie have been cast adrift by the country’s financial ruin but seek to save up enough to buy their own place together. As they settle into a new ranch, it appears they may realize their dream with the cooperation of the elderly Candy, who has saved up a few hundred dollars of compensation money thanks to a disfiguring accident. But when the foreman Curley’s flirtatious wife, who isn’t even named, starts making trouble, their ambitions are dashed.
All of the other characters are mystified by George and Lennie’s connection-the nasty Curley even hints it may be a gay relationship. What they are is envious of the unlikely pair’s bond. Each of the others is alone. Candy’s only friend is his old dog, who is put down by the other workers for smelling bad. The black stable hand Crooks is ostracized because of his race. Even Curley’s desperate spouse longs for company and is accused of being a tramp because the only people she can talk to at the ranch are men. As Shapiro did with August: Osage County, she mines the misunderstood striving for connection between volatile characters to create theatrical fireworks. She is aided by Todd Rosenthal’s poetic set, which blends specific details with a vast depiction of the empty spaces of California farmland.
Franco gives an understated but convincing account of George and allows the spotlight to shine on his fellow players. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd captures Lennie’s sweet, childlike nature and the savage rage that occasionally emerges; he’s sort of like a cute baby with the strength of the Incredible Hulk. Jim Norton is tragically intense as the forlorn Candy. The blank look on his face as his dog is being executed is shattering. As the resentful Crooks, Ron Cephas Jones is equally adept at conveying his character’s isolation. Leighton Meester of TV’s Gossip Girl as Curley’s wife gives the only shallow performance in this otherwise top-notch cast.
April 16-July 27. Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., NYC. Tue 8pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $37-137. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Richard Phibbs