Of Mice and Men

James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at the Longacre Theatre. (© Richard Phibbs) (source)

James Franco as George and Chris O’Dowd as Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, at the Longacre Theatre.  (© Richard Phibbs) (source)

In July 2014 the John Steinbeck play “Of Mice and Men” played at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway in New York City. It starred James Franco as ‘George’ and the Irish actor Chris O’Dowd as ‘Lenny’, and was nominated for two Tony Awards. I didn’t see the show on Broadway, but this week I did see it on the big screen, filmed and distributed by the UK National Theatre Live — their first Broadway show filming. While I’d still prefer the live experience, I was grateful for the opportunity to see this famous play, exceptionally well acted.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his novel of the same name, while it was still selling well, in 1937. You may know the plot — it’s an iconic American story — but in case you don’t, I’ll avoid a ‘reveal’ of the ending. The characters are itinerant Californian farm workers from the Depression era, travelling around for work near Salinas, in the country behind Monterey. They lob up at a ranch where a cast of secondary characters become embroiled in their fate. An NYT journalist wrote, when the play first appeared in 1937:

“…Steinbeck has caught on paper two odd and loveable farm vagrants whose fate is implicit in their characters.”

George’s devotion to the simple Lenny, and the longing for the two of them – and others – for a place to call their own is the central premise. But they’re pretty much doomed. I’ll say no more…

It’s not easy to write, or play, a simple-minded person convincingly and with multiple facets to their character. ‘Lenny’ is a triumph. Chris O’Dowd is fabulous. James Franco, despite the handicap of good looks, is also excellent as ‘George’. I was also very impressed with the rest of the cast – there are ten characters in total (if you don’t count the mouse. Or the dogs.) Jim Norton plays Candy, the old farm gofer; and Jim Parrack is brilliant as Slim, a salt-of-the-earth guy. Alex Morf is Curley, and Leighton Meester is Curley’s wife (the catalyst for all the trouble). Ron Cephas Jones, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin and Jim Ortlieb complete a very strong ensemble.

This reviewer is a fan:

“This is a friendship that you care about, and their performances are powerful because they are so recognizably human. Watching the endearing O’Dowd, bushy-bearded and bald-headed, lovingly banter in the manner of true friends with Franco’s cunning, volatile George makes the play’s outcome even more horrifying.”

The director of this revival is Anna D. Shapiro, and the play is tightly directed. The same reviewer makes the point:

“… you don’t anticipate what’s going to happen when the first lines are uttered, and that is precisely why Shapiro’s revival is so noteworthy. Here is a story that almost everyone knows and yet somehow plays out like a genuine suspense thriller. Shapiro keeps the tension steadily rising until the final moments, when you’re literally at the edge of your seats and ready to gasp. And the text, as recited by this assortment of extremely contemporary actors, sounds like it could have been written yesterday.”

Thanks to National Theatre Live, I didn’t miss out on this one. Memo to self: check cinema listings for more of their filmed plays. It may not be quite the same as the Real Thing, but it’s awfully close.

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