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Review Roundup: OF MICE AND MEN Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!

Directed by Tony Award winner Anna D. Shapiro, the new Broadway production of Of Mice and Men officially opens tonight, April 16, 2014 at the Longacre Theatre.

The all-star production features James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, and Leighton Meester, as well as Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack, Michael Dempsey, Kevin Jackson, Erica Lutz, and Stephen Payne.

Of Mice and Men, one of the greatest and most enduring American classics, has not been seen on Broadway in 40 years. Adapted from his own classic novel, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is an essential adventure, an inspirational portrait of the American spirit and a heartbreaking testament to the bonds of friendship.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: Mr. Franco, Mr. O'Dowd and their director, Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County"), face the daunting task of turning folk heroes as fixed as the heads on Mount Rushmore back into pulsing flesh. This shouldn't be impossible...Yet somehow Ms. Shapiro's handsome, meticulously designed production (featuring impressive Walker Evans-evoking sets by Todd Rosenthal) feels about as fluid as a diorama in a history museum. And its two undeniably talented leading men, though known as quirky and adventurous screen stars, here wear their archetypes like armor...Lennie is a role that is pretty hard to get wrong, if the performer has the right physical dimensions. Mr. O'Dowd gives the expected gentle-giant performance, though he uses his left hand in surprisingly delicate gestures that bring affecting grace notes to Lennie's lumbering presence. Though he sports a Yosemite Sam accent, Mr. Franco is often understated to the point of near invisibility. It's a tight, internal performance begging for a camera's close-up.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: There are hordes of teenage girls waiting outside the Longacre Theatre each night hoping to squeal over uber-muffin James Franco. But true theater fans should be waiting for his co-star to emerge. Chris O'Dowd, known more for films like "Bridesmaids" and "Friends With Kids," turns in a very impressive performance as the mentally challenged Lennie in a fine revival of "Of Mice and Men." Franco? He's pretty good in his Broadway debut as George, but O'Dowd, in a tricky role, steals the show...O'Dowd, his hair shaved and sporting a bushy beard, beautifully conveys Lennie's innocence, his tics and his toddler-like frustrations. Franco is more standoffish, creating a George who apparently longs to be alone, tries to be decent and squints a lot.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: The headline news in this stirring Broadway remount is the stage debut of peripatetic artistic adventurer James Franco, starring opposite the wonderful Chris O'Dowd as itinerant ranch workers George and Lennie. But the real satisfaction comes from those unforgettable characters, their joy and wrenching sorrow, and the enduring power of their story of friendship sustained by illusory dreams in a world of solitude...If he's not quite a natural onstage, registering as an actor more accustomed to transmitting nuances of feeling to a camera, [Franco] brings warmth and understated manliness to George in a performance that grows more assured as the play progresses. Most crucially, Franco has beautiful chemistry with O'Dowd...Irish actor O'Dowd is tremendous in a part that could easily stray into mawkish territory. His Lennie is a trusting innocent, clinging to the rituals of his life with George.

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: 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.

Linda Winer, Newsday: The inevitable headline is that James making his Broadway debut in John Steinbeck's 1937 "Of Mice and Men." But the real news is that Franco is just one fine element in this straightforward powerhouse of a revival, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with inspiring trust in the impact of classic storytelling...Franco has an easygoing presence and a dark, cranky, cowboy voice and, except perhaps for overly manicured facial hair, never suggests he might be smarter or hipper than his character. O'Dowd's Lennie is a big, childlike mouth-breather whose deliberate speech contrasts touchingly with his delicate fingers, which appear to dance -- at times too heavily -- with a mind of their own...No matter how well we know the story, it is hard not to hope that, just maybe, things will turn out better this time. This may be one good definition of a classic.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: In the new Broadway production of Mice (* * * ½ out of four stars)...Lennie is played by Irish actor Chris O'Dowd...You wouldn't necessarily recognize him here; his wavy locks shorn to a buzz cut, O'Dowd stoops, suggesting a man either hiding or apologizing for his physical height and might. When Lennie is excited or curious, the fingers on his left hand curl, as if grasping for information he cannot comprehend; when he's afraid, or ashamed, he flinches, like a child being scolded. It's a vivid, sensitive performance of the piece with director Anna D. Shapiro's staging...It's a credit to Shapiro and her company that, in this revival of Mice, hope comes through as powerfully as its ultimate futility.

David Cote, Time Out NY: Truth is, the men need each other -- just as Franco needs O'Dowd to help him achieve full stageworthiness in John Steinbeck's 1937 theatrical adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men. Franco gives an easy, well-shaded performance, but it's O'Dowd who stuns with a harrowingly real Lennie. The role of a mentally disabled character can be either technically overdone or a wallow in bathos, but O'Dowd is superb -- watch his delicate hand fluttering and how he steals looks at the boss's flirty daughter-in-law (Leighton Meester). As Lennie grows too excited, causing death when he only wants to pet (animals and people), the hulking O'Dowd combines incredible physical menace with terrorized vacancy.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Celebrated director Anna D. Shapiro pulls no punches in her savage take on "Of Mice and Men"...It certainly helps that she has two gifted performers as her leading men, James Franco and Chris O'Dowd, both making memorable debuts...It's O'Dowd (the doughy Irish actor and comic, of "Bridesmaids"), as Lennie, who has the hardest job...His Lennie is a human being of emotional intelligence, whose overwhelming feelings often get the better of him. O'Dowd gives an endearing interpretation of a mentally addled man who wants nothing more than "to live off the fat of the land." Franco, the performer-director-writer-teacher -- geez, he's such a multitasker that he even appears in a Gucci ad on the back of the Playbill -- is such a cult object that I feared his presence would throw the characters out of equilibrium. My fears were unwarranted, because he gives such an understated and natural performance.

Jesse Green, Vulture: Lennie is the showier role, and O'Dowd, in his Broadway debut, does not waste its opportunities. (Who knew from his appearances on Girls and in Bridesmaidshe could be so masterful?)...O'Dowd normalizes Lennie with a degree of humor and self-consciousness that's disarming...George has no such ingratiations to offer the audience, except the complicated love for his friend. As a result, Franco, a better actor than his meta-shenanigans sometimes suggest, gets off to a shaky start...Later though, as George becomes more protective and unselfish, Franco not only aligns himself with the part but justifies his star casting. The ambiguity of the bond between Lennie and George -- a bond regarded by other characters with suspicion or approval -- is well served by the ambiguity Franco bears with him always, like a perfume.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly: In his Broadway debut, Franco shows a relaxed stage presence and real charisma, though his occasional explosions of anger or frustration seem to rely more on turning up the volume dial rather than digging for any deeper nuance...The real surprise in Anna D. Shapiro's finely staged production is Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids) as George's mentally challenged travel companion, Lenny. The gifted comedic actor brings a studied and skillful physicality to Lenny, a gentle giant with a stubbly shaved head who's not aware of his own strength even as he compulsively touches soft things -- a scrap of velvet, a puppy, a young woman's neck. O'Dowd's riveting performance is a study in underdeveloped impulse control: He frequently reaches out his hand with crooked fingers, then just as quickly withdraws. Though his native Irish accent occasional pokes through, O'Dowd makes Lenny sympathetic without ever stooping to caricature.

Matt Windman, AM New York: Whereas "the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry," the Broadway revival of "Of Mice and Men" couldn't get much better...The new Broadway production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County") with a cast of Hollywood names (James Franco, Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester, all making their Broadway debuts) alongside stage regulars (Jim Norton and Ron Cephas Jones), is genuinely gripping, gritty and emotionally shattering. O'Dowd...makes a convincing, full-bodied transformation into the innocently excited, gentle giant Lennie...Franco, a regular presence on film, in the tabloids and even academia, acquits himself very well as George, stressing the character's introspective nature, frustration in trying to protect Lennie from the outside world and the loneliness and guilt that leads him to take on the challenging role of his protector.

Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: Steinbeck's story isn't exactly subtle. Director Anna D. Shapiro ("August: Osage County") packs shading and meaning into an evocative production in which danger lurks everywhere...Shapiro's ace cast grips, too, but not terrifyingly...O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") is such a likable and endearing actor that he automatically brings goodwill to a role. The Broadway rookie's thoughtful performance as the loud, clumsy and sweet overgrown child creates a sense of imminent catastrophe. As George, who's torn between protectiveness and outrage, Franco's confident, straightforward, no-frills performance works just right. He can do a lot with a look.

Peter Marks, The Washington Post: The migrant-worker tragedy "Of Mice and Men" may be compulsory reading in freshman English, but should it feel like homework for Broadway audiences, too?...We're meant to see in George, and his tough-love tendernesses toward Lennie, the forces of redemption at work. Except we don't see much of anything in Franco's inexpressive countenance. Poised handsomely in work clothes, he registers changes in his features barely perceptibly, as if he is waiting during the 15th take for the camera to pick up the facial nuances...O'Dowd is called on here to convey intellectual slowness in that big, conventionally physical way, with slurred speech and a slightly unfocused gaze. It's a better than serviceable performance under the circumstances; he's doubtless required to fill some of the emotional vacuum left by his co-star.

Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times: In playing George opposite Chris O'Dowd's lumbering, mentally challenged, bunny obsessed Lennie in Anna D. Shapiro's gleaming yet hollow production, Franco delivers a performance that is the equivalent of a term paper on John Steinbeck's 1937 novella written the night before it was due with help from a double-shot of energy drink. He's obviously an actor of wide-ranging intelligence, but his intellectualism doesn't serve him here. His acting -- unspontaneous, utterly devoid of reflexes and lacking the gremlin smirk of his best film work -- happens strictly from the neck up. Rather than inhabiting moments and making connections with his fellow performers, he plays a series of ideas, turning up the dial on impatience, anger and loneliness when required but remaining more or less disembodied from his circumstances...O'Dowd, making a worthier Broadway debut, submits himself more wholly to the task at hand. But the character of Lennie, with his child's mind trapped inside a giant's body, is a difficult role to credibly reinvent.

Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune: Many in the audience for "Of Mice and Men" are coming to see James Franco. But given director Anna D. Shapiro's long history with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble, it's perhaps not surprising that the main pleasures of her straight-up but resonant Broadway revival of "Of Mice and Men" lie with the gray-toned, journeymen actors who wander in and out of the Steinbeckian shadows of the Salinas Valley, cloutless traveling workers and those who wrangle them with various degrees of fear and loathing. All are writ and here played as fearful. Whether it's Jim Parrack as Slim, Ron Cephas Jones as Crooks, Joel Marsh Garland as Carlson, Jim Ortlieb as The Boss or Jim Norton as the elderly Candy, a heart-wrenching character who must suffer through the loss of his beloved old dog and immediately understand that they will be coming for him next, the valley on the stage of the aptly named Longacre Theatre is filled with small but beautifully crafted, and deftly cast, performances.

Tom Wicker, The Telegraph: Loose-limbed and lumbering, O'Dowd is a revelation as Lennie - a giant of a man left childlike and painfully innocent by a head injury suffered in his youth. As Lennie faithfully repeats and then immediately forgets George's instructions before they reach their latest ranch, O'Dowd neither patronises nor makes light of the character. His American accent is pretty good, too. O'Dowd slides more easily into Steinbeck's rhythm than Franco, who crackles with intensity in some scenes but who initially gives a strained, over-exerted performance. It isn't until the pair settle at the ranch that the tangled knot of emotions binding them together feels real.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Yes, they can. Both of them. And that includes James Franco. When big stars make their Broadway debuts, especially those big stars who don't have much of a theater pedigree, the first question has to be: "So, can they act? On stage?"...In the current "Of Mice and Men" revival, which opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre, Franco and stage vet Chris O'Dowd do something much more than not embarrass themselves... O'Dowd, who's well known to theatergoers in London and Dublin (he also guest-starred on HBO's "Girls"), brings a surprisingly feminine grace to the mentally challenged Lennie, a quality that makes his shifts into violence all the more shocking. He's a big man on stage, but the real joy in this performance is watching his hands. The gestures are so delicate, as if his fingers can express what his tongue can't. Franco completely abandons any trace of the laconic slacker that's defined his best-known screen portrayals. Here on stage, he's both strong and determined...

David Finkle, The Huffington Post: The beauty of Steinbeck's themes is that they're embedded in any number of pungent scenes that the cast members--many of them, like Franco, and Meester, making the Broadway bows--bring to vivid, heart-wrenching life under Shapiro's taut direction...Although Franco overdoes the level of his disappointment with Lennie at the opening, he pulls back through the remaining two acts to give a shaded view of a strong, moral man who has an obligation he can't refuse to honor and yet knows could be his undoing. O'Dowd brings all manner of subtlety to Lennie. What he does with his fluttery hands alone is acting inspiration. He sees that Lennie's feelings are all unguardedly on the surface and expresses that through mood changes often simultaneously funny and sorrowful.

Elisabeth VIncentelli, NY Post: There may be no more strikingly different debuts than the ones James Franco and Chris O'Dowd are making in "Of Mice and Men." As George, the wandering ranch hand in John Steinbeck's hard-luck 1930s California, Franco is all surface, never giving us any insight into what drives him - he's a very handsome blank.

Robert Feldberg, Bergen Record: Franco is not terrible; he's an intelligent actor. But his George reveals no shadings of feeling, or internal life. It's a performance that just evaporates. Only Norton, a canny veteran, manages to suggest the poignancy of his trapped character. When one of the other men in the bunkhouse takes Candy's old, deaf dog outside to euthanize her, Candy sits shaken and silent, waiting - along with everyone in the audience - for what seems like minutes, for the sound of the inevitable shot that will tell him the deed is done. It's the only suspenseful moment in an otherwise very long evening.

Tom Teodorczuk, Independent: Of Mice and Men is an excellent Broadway revival fuelled by Franco who offers a welcome illustration of what can happen when a star sheds his other more modern personas and takes to the stage to simply act.

Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star: But it's the acting that makes this song sing so truly. Every role is cast with the proper grit and texture, with all the ranch hands seeming like the rough, broken men they are and Leighton Meester playing Curley's Wife as the tawdry rag doll with her eye on a non-existent prize that she has to be. Jim Norton has an almost biblical resonance to his work as Candy, a man who dares to hope one more time, even if fate has shown him that he shouldn't, and Ron Cephas Jones makes something frighteningly wonderful out of the crippled black outcast, Crooks.

Photo Credit: Richard Phibb

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