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.