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A CurtainUp Review
Of Mice and Men
By Elyse Sommer
I probably should have dedicated my Metaphors Dictionary to John Steinbeck. It was reading his novella Of Mice and Men and the more epic The Grapes of Wrath that first heightened my awareness and appreciation of metaphors.
Both of these depression era stories feature a small animal to foreshadow ominous events to come. The dead mouse retrieved from Lenny's pocket in the very first scene of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men stage adaptation alerts us that this child-like man's physical strength and penchant for touching soft things will have ever more dire consequences. The pup Lenny "nurtures" and Candy's old dog expand on the symbolism. Similarly, the turtle crossing the highway early on in The Grapes of Wrath, is an omen of the Joad family's painful efforts to survive in the face of a large and cruel world.
Being awarded both a Pulitzer ( Grapes of Wrath) and Nobel, hasn't prevented Steinbeck from falling out of the public limelight. However, Of Mice and Men is still one of the most familiar odd couple/buddy stories, thanks to several movie adaptations and its continued place on high school reading list. Consequently it's unlikely that anyone attending the current long overdue Broadway revival won't know how these too lonely farm workers' latest temporary job will end.
Since this oddball buddy drama is essentially a thriller, can the absence of suspense about its literally bang-up denouement still make for a satisfying theatrical outing? Anna Shapiro's first-rate production now at the Longacre Theatre makes that a resounding yes. What keeps you fully absorbed from start to finish, is not suspense about how it ends, but seeing a sterling cast bring Steinbeck's bleak and symbolism infused drama to vivid life.
Just in case the plot details have slipped your mind: The play revolves around two itinerant ranch workers in California's Salinas Valley, one of whom is a sweet but trouble attracting simpleton and the other his unwilling yet caring and committed caretaker. Their shared dream of owning their own patch of land comes a cropper when Lennie finally does a "really bad thing."
Naturally, to give this revival that something new buzz, it helps to have three star billed actors — James Franco, Chris O"Dowd and Leighton Meester— heading an excellent, all three making their Broadway debuts.
The most high profile is James Franco, the man of a thousand interests (movie and TV actor, writer, producer, teacher). He plays George with a good feel for this loner's complicated affection and loyalty to the childlike, trouble prone Lennie. It's a solid and nicely understated performance, but if there's a best actor in a revival Tony award here, it's likely to go to the lesser known Irish actor Chris O'Dowd as the lumbering, giant who's ironic full name is Lennie Small. As portrayed by O'Dowd, Lennie at once charms and repels. You can't take your eyes off those fluttering hands (I can't recall seeing an actor use their hands this effectively since Vanessa Redgrave's drugged-out wife in Long Days Journey Into Night).
Leighton Meester, best known for TV's
Gossip Girl, makes the most of the comparatively minor role of the nameless new wife of the volatile and jealous boss's son Curly (Alex Morf). It's a small part in terms of stage time but, of course, it's the one that triggers the inevitably melodramatic climax.
The entire ensemble contributes mightily to the power of this lyrical rendering of Steinbeck's bleak depression era world of homeless, hopeless lives made even sadder by overwhelming loneliness. Jim Norton adds another memorable portrait to his extensive resume as Candy, whose loss of his sick old dog (the fourth dog to tread the stage this season!) is almost too painful to watch. Another standout is Ron Cephas Jones as Crooks, the embittered black man who has the dubious honor of having his own private room in back of the stable.
Though the play is old-fashioned, Todd Rosenthal's scenic design takes full advantage of modern stagecraft. An abstract open field bookends realistically detailed descending, rising and sliding scenes in the ranch bunk house, Croop's room and also the barn where Lennie gets into double trouble.
The Longacre Theater was packed, right up to the second balcony. More than likely it's that rather high up second balcony that will probably be filled with students throughout the run. I couldn't help envying them a little for the chance to see this brutal yet full of feeling work so sensitively and excitingly brought to the stage. As Steinbeck heightened my awareness and appreciation of metaphors in my student days, so this Of Mice and Men I hope this production may heighten their appreciation of both literature and live drama.
A footnote: When Of Mice and Men made its only other Broadway appearance it was produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman, both of whom are major characters in another new Broadway production, James Lapine's adaptation of Moss Hart's memoir, Act One.