by: JK Clarke
In the first scene of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men,’ two men of uneven intellect await, and dwell on, a future that will not—nay, cannot—come to pass. And yet they discuss their unattainable dream so convincingly that it seems completely plausible. So much so that even the audience begins to believe it. Much like Samuel Beckett’s curiously similar ‘Waiting for Godot’ (which came two decades later), the lesson imparted deals largely with futility. In Godot it’s the futility and existential meaninglessness of life and the universe as we know it. But, in Of Mice and Men, it’s the pointlessness of trying to survive in a society that is completely stacked against the unfortunate: “Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody never gets no land. It’s just in their head.”
Of Mice and Men, now playing on Broadway at the Longacre, is the story of two Northern California migrant ranch workers: tender-hearted, mentally-disabled Lennie, who’s freakishly strong, but very hard working; and George, his begrudging yet resigned friend and caretaker. The two have just been run out of Weed (a small northern California town) because Lennie’s shortcomings have falsely led locals to believe he tried to rape a woman, and they’re out to lynch him. Now they have alit on a small ranch where the plan is to make their stake, save their earnings and purchase their own plot of land to farm for themselves. But, as asserts the namesake Robert Burns poem, “the best laid plans of mice and men/[often go awry.]”
So what can a Broadway revival of this too familiar story offer us? Perhaps it’s a more enlightened, and sensitive portrayal of Lennie. His is a universally familiar character, having been famously lampooned in the Merrie Melodies and Loony Toons cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, in which Lennie is made out to be a gargantuan moron (mimicking Lon Chaney Jr’s filmic representation), bleating, “Which way did he go, George; which way did he go?” Fortunately, as society has become more sensitive to the mentally challenged, their representation on stage and in film has become more layered and respectful.
The real story here, then, is Chris O’Dowd’s utterly magnificent and nuanced performance as Lennie, which brings to mind Leonardo DiCaprio’s Academy Award nominated performance in the 1993 film, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” To be a small, defenseless creature in Lennie’s presence is to be both unconditionally loved and, simultaneously, in imminent peril. He cannot control momentary emotional outbursts—such as the sudden pang of a nip or rejection—and his brutish strength quickly turns mishap into tragedy. But, through O’Dowd’s loving portrayal, Lennie is not just a simple brute; rather, he is a man utterly deserving of mercy and understanding and, here, has a charmed audience in the palm of his hand. O’Dowd inhabits Lennie so thoroughly and intensely—when he is on stage it is impossible to take one’s eyes off him and the physicality of his character—that it’s difficult to imagine that he too isn’t mentally handicapped.
Happily, O’Dowd has terrific support. Director Anna D. Shapiro has assembled a cast that is, for the most part, period perfect and in lockstep with O’Dowd. As George, James Franco appears plucked right out of the Central Valley in 1930. His George is multi-dimensional, and we can see him struggling between his dreams and his moral obligation: Lennie is his albatross, but despite his cynical nature, George is not about to break his promise and abandon him. Both Jim Norton as the old, one-armed rancher, Candy, and Ron Cephas Jones as Crooks, the racially ostracized blacksmith, are wonderfully multi-layered, resentful dreamers who get caught up in the pair’s fantasy of escape. And mention must be made of Candy’s wonderful, yet doomed, old dog: a very old pit bull (such a brave, plaudit-worthy choice, bravo!), who plays her role beautifully, despite clearly being somewhat stiff-legged and aged. Perhaps the production’s only weakness is Leighton Meester as Curley’s Wife, who is too one-dimensional for a role that is so pivotal and catalytic. She lacks the verve that would cause men to behave badly.
Add to all this Todd Rosenthal’s wonderfully authentic sets: from dusky foothills with a twilight sky the color (Japhy Weideman) which can only be found in California; to a bunkhouse that descends—intact—from the rafters, so realistic that one can practically taste the dust and smell the old dog.
It is generally difficult to find joy in such a heavy handed tragedy that dwells in the unfairness and futility of life. It was always Steinbeck’s purpose to expose the plight of the less fortunate, but in doing so he also revealed the most basic elements of beauty in humankind. It is this feature that rises most prominently in this production, and Chris O’Dowd has seized upon it, painting for us a beautiful person in the doomed and unfortunate Lennie.
*Photos: Richard Phibbs
Of Mice and Men. Through July 27 at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street (between 8th Avenue and Broadway).www.ofmiceandmenonbroadway.com