×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Broadway Review: ‘Of Mice and Men’ Starring James Franco, Chris O’Dowd

Anna D. Shapiro delivers a flawless, beautifully acted revival of John Steinbeck's 1937 play.

With:
Cast: James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester, Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack.

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd may be the big draws (and well deserving of all their kudos) in this emotionally devastating revival of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” But the other star of the show is helmer Anna D. Shapiro, who turns in an impeccably mounted production without a single blemish. The ensemble acting is flawless. The design work is breathtaking. And Steinbeck’s Depression-based views on the human connections that are our only hope of survival in desperate times are just as relevant — even imperative — for living through our own cruel times.

The symbiotic relationship between smart, scrappy George (Franco) and his hulking, brain-damaged friend, Lennie (O’Dowd), is at the heart of this 1937 play (adapted by Steinbeck from his own novella) about the broken, homeless men (bindlestiffs, they were called) who wandered the country, living from farm job to farm job, during the Great Depression.

The mood of that period is gorgeously but disturbingly rendered by the brilliant creative team assembled by Shapiro. Set designer Todd Rosenthal steps up with the grim vision of an empty, brooding sky hanging low over a vast parched landscape inhospitable to man or beast or any living thing. Japhy Weideman gradually softens that bleak backdrop with a lighting scheme of earthy brown tones that becomes the only warmth to be found in this pitiless environment. David Singer’s haunting underscoring links to the lonely desert sounds supplied by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Truly, this is no man’s land.

As with all the other itinerant workers traveling together on these rough roads, the unlikely friendship between George and Lennie was first forged out of a mutual need for protection. Quick-witted George finds them farm work and protects Lennie from being abused or exploited, while protecting everyone else from Lennie’s uncontrollable brute strength. In turn, Lennie’s muscle makes sure no one messes with George. But George and Lennie have gone well beyond that initial mutual dependency. Theirs is a strange, but true friendship, one that Franco and O’Dowd hold between themselves with the tenderness of new parents raising a fragile but beloved child.

Although he lives in the body of a giant (an illusion that costumer Suttirat Larlarb helps maintain), Lennie has the mind of a child, the sweetness of a child, and a child’s need to be cared for and comforted. O’Dowd has mastered a small but refined repertoire of facial expressions and gestures (one hand movement has the delicacy of an artist) that is quite astonishing. Going beyond that physical expressiveness, the depth and understanding he brings to the role render Lennie, quite simply, heartbreaking.

The multitalented and ever-so-busy Franco gives a performance that’s equally honest and beautifully crafted. In this relationship, his carefully articulated George is the storyteller and the keeper of the dream they share of buying a little farm, working the land, and living on the crops they grow and the animals they raise. Franco has the kind of storytelling voice that can make anyone believe in his dreams. But Lennie’s belief in this dream of a farm has become his single fierce passion. With his childlike need to stroke soft, living things (like the poor field mice he pets to death), he’s become fixated on the rabbits that George has promised to let him care for on their fantasy-farm — a fixation bound to end in tragedy.

Franco’s personal magnetism works perfectly for George, a charmer who quietly disarms the whole bunkhouse on the farm where he and Lennie find work.  He’s not only the dream-keeper who keeps Lennie content, but the storyteller who tragically comes to believe in his own tall tales. There’s plenty of foreshadowing in the taut, well-built plot, which takes its tragic toll when George and Lennie’s fantasy comes up against the cold reality of a bunkhouse full of real people.

There’s no way to overpraise the nine men and one woman (Leighton Meester, holding her own nicely, thank you, as the femme fatale) in this ensemble who bring Steinbeck’s characters to life. They’re a motley crew, one and all, and most are truly memorable. That would be Jim Norton’s heart-wrenching Candy, the pathetic old ranch hand who can read his fate on the bunkhouse walls, as well as Joel Marsh Garland’s burly Carlson, the bunkhouse bully who intimidates Candy into letting him shoot his old dog. And Jim Parrack’s Slim, the sober peacemaker, along with Alex Morf’s sadistic Curley, who does everything a man can to destroy that peace. Not to mention Ron Cephas Jones’ blazingly intelligent Crooks, the black guy the white guys won’t allow inside the bunkhouse.

Every last one of these men on this farm is given human dignity as well as character dimension by members of this extraordinary company. Which is more than the real-life models for these men got back in Steinbeck’s day.

Popular on Variety

Broadway Review: 'Of Mice and Men' Starring James Franco, Chris O'Dowd

Longacre Theater; 1,087 seats; $147 top. Opened April 16, 2014. Reviewed April 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A David Binder, Kate Lear, Darren Bagert, Adam Zotovich, Latitude Link/Piedmont Prods., 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, and the Shubert Organization presentation of a play in two acts by John Steinbeck.

Creative: Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Suttirat Larlarb; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; original music, David Singer; fight direction, Thomas Schall; hair and wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Jane Grey.

Cast: Cast: James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester, Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content