BWW Reviews: Shapiro Gives OF MICE AND MEN a Classic Treatment
It didn't take long for John Steinbeck's classic novel Of Mice and Men to hit the Broadway stage. Published in 1937, it was mounted at The Music Box in a production directed by George S. Kaufman by the end of November that same year.
This was by design, as Steinbeck's intention was to write a text so heavy with dialogue that it served as both a book and a play script.
The Great Depression was still in full swing when the now iconic characters of George and Lennie were introduced to America as contemporary representatives of the migrant workers who traveled the country from job to job - like mice scurrying for food, you might say - in search of their American dream.
Director Anna D. Shapiro's heartbreaking production sets an intimate story involving characters overwhelmed by the loneliness of their lives in large, intimidating locations, designed by Todd Rosenthal, full of cold and merciless images. (Particularly striking is a toothy crane that hangs above stacks of hay in one scene, jaws wide open.)
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd lead an excellent ensemble as traveling partners whose lives take drastic turns when they're hired for ranch work in California's Salinas Valley. The smart but uneducated George (Franco) dreams of being able to buy his own plot of land and live off the fat of it; a dream he's convinced the exceptionally strong, but mentally underdeveloped Lennie (O'Dowd) to share with him.
Lennie's child-like attraction to small, furry animals, coupled with an inability to control his own strength, often produces tragic results for the little friends he likes to pet. O'Dowd's innocent tenderness in his portrayal, and his realistic commitment to moments when the character is overwhelmed with fear, contribute meaningful pathos.
Franco's George is a decent man who hides his emotions as a survival tactic in a mean world full of aggressive men competing for self-respect. His quiet, protective affection for Lennie is simply expressed. While their performances are strong, their appearances are jarring, as George seems too well-groomed and Lennie's shaved head and full shaggy beard (different from what's in the above photo) doesn't seem like a realistic choice.
Jim Norton gives one of his most beautiful and sympathetic stage portrayals as the elderly ranch hand, Candy, who relies on the friendship provided by his aging dog. Alex Morf is appropriately hotheaded as Curley, a former boxer always looking to prove himself to make up for his short stature, and Leighton Meester, as the character known only as Curley's wife, is touching in her attempts to find some simple friendship to make up for the loneliness she finds in her marriage.
Shapiro's somewhat daring touch with the play's famous final moment softens the tragedy and even adds a bit of hopefulness. It's an appropriate bit of warmth that enhances the drama lovingly.