Of Mice and Men is a visually beautiful production. From the opening moments of the sun shining through what appears to be an iron wall split by the horizon, the set is rustic and full of striking metals. Here’s the thing though: the play itself didn’t leave me feeling like I’d been punched in the gut. I talk about this expectation a lot actually, and I suppose it’s odd to say I’m disappointed when I don’t get to feel like that. But that’s what theatre is for sometimes – to feel like your stomach has been turned upside down or your mind has been messed with or your heartstrings tugged. It’s one thing to be emotionally manipulated à la Spielberg’s “ET” with camera close-ups and music swelling at just the right moment, but another thing to be emotionally torn apart by the story alone. It’s why John Steinbeck’s novel is so iconic – the tragedy of Lennie’s and George’s story stays with us, leaving us feeling anywhere from distraught and angry to hollow and sympathetic. This production landed more in neutral territory.
I am going to condense the spoilers as much as I can due to the fact that some people have yet to see the play or read the book or see the movie (seriously though, I would get on that). My roomie had no idea what was going to happen, which made for a fun intermission of predictions. Needless to say, sh*t goes down, and you can tell as early as the looming scenes of Act 1 that things will not be ending super well for these characters.
Chris O’Dowd gives a beautiful, innocent, nuanced performance as Lennie. He’s endearing, touching, and an incredibly sympathetic character. I did not connect with James Franco’s George as much. He has some nice moments, but I think his work may be too subtle for the theatre. I did see him trying, but he lacked life on stage. He’s playing for the camera, and in a big house, his acting gets lost. I imagine audience members in the first few rows have an entirely different experience of his work. I did enjoy the friendship that was developed between Lennie and George, when Franco would let himself go. I could see the humor and love there, particularly in a scene late in Act 1 when they sit at the card table talking about their fantasy of owning their own land someday (pictured above). Franco comes alive and plays beyond a few inches from his face, and that’s when real connection occurs and the sparks start to fly. Leighton Meester was a wash for me. Granted, Curley’s wife is a very hard role, but I don’t know what she was working toward. I didn’t know what she, as the character, wanted. It felt like the same tactic for every moment.
The production (sneak peek here) features a strong ensemble. I particularly enjoyed Jim Parrack as Slim and Jim Norton as Candy. And allow me to name-drop for a moment, because my friend Alex Morf is Curley, and he’s great! It’s his Broadway debut, and he looks so damn good up there playing such an ass.
[SPOILERS IN NEXT PARAGRAPH]
A scene that particularly struck me was Curley’s wife’s death. The moment you see Lennie surrounded by all that hay in the barn, you know it’s time for the iconic turn of events. He sits there with the poor dead puppy in his enormous hands, scolding him for dying. When Curley’s wife joins him on the ground, even people who aren’t familiar with the story know that this can’t end well. I loved the direction of this scene – so simple and understated. These two estranged characters connect without actually connecting at all. They’re both sharing their fears and dreams without actually hearing the other person’s words. When Lennie starts to feel her soft hair, everyone in the house tenses. Her struggle and accidental murder are hard to watch and almost too believable. I wish the last moments of the play had landed similarly with me. I didn’t see George make his final decision to kill Lennie in order to spare him whatever the manhunt would bring. I didn’t see his struggle with the choice, only Lennie’s helplessness. And the last light cue was so blatant that it took me out of it, followed by an abrupt blackout. I wanted another moment with George to see how his actions will affect him and to wonder what’s to come.
Of Mice and Men
Written by John Steinbeck, Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Longacre Theatre, Closing July 27th
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: James Franco and Chris O’Dowd