It shouldn’t be a surprise that John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men translates nearly seamlessly to the stage. Steinbeck said he wrote the novella with a stage adaptation in mind, and director Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) has transformed New York’s Longacre Theater into 1930s California with a mind-blowingly beautiful set, tight script, and an extremely well cast set of characters.
Of Mice and Men tells the story of two migrant farm workers, George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd), as they search for new job opportunities post Great Depression. George Milton, an intelligent dreamer of a man, and Lennie Small, a mentally challenged man unable to handle his own immense strength, are run out of Weed, California after a misunderstanding involving Lennie and his love for petting things (and not being able to stop).
The pair travel to Salinas Valley in search of a new job and they land at a ranch with a cast of characters including an elderly man and dog owner who last previously lost one of his hands on the ranch named Candy (Jim Norton), The Boss’ son Curley (Alex Morf) who has a Napoleon complex, and jerkline skinner and all around nice guy Slim (Jim Parrack from TV’s True Blood, which he curiously omits from his Playbill bio).
O’Dowd’s performance is one for the books, and it will be a surprise if he doesn’t get a Tony nomination for the role. From the first moment he stands, O’Dowd owns the stage (of course, it helps that the actor is 6’3), and it’s his performance that stands out more than anyone else (although veteran actor Jim Norton as Candy comes a close second). Within seconds, I forgot O’Dowd was the guy from Bridesmaids and believed the character had sprung right off the pages. O’Dowd has affected a sort of slow drawl (it’s how we imagine Lennie would talk), along with a left finger that is always moving as if the finger can say things he can’t. It’s a heart-breaking performance because as Steinbeck intended we both feel for the character and understand why what happens has to happen.
Much has been said about Franco’s performance. After a less than stellar review from the New York Times‘ Ben Brantley, Franco called the writer a “little bitch” on Instagram. But the truth is, Brantley is right. Franco may be the big ticket seller (let’s face it, the man has a Gucci ad on the back of his own Playbill), but it’s really O’Dowd’s show. At times, Franco’s accent feels forced and, as Brantley says, he almost disappears on stage behind O’Dowd’s powerful performance. It’s not entirely clear, however, whether that’s due to Franco’s performance or the script itself, which definitely spends more time on showing us Lennie rather than letting us peek inside George until the end, of course.
Leighton Meester (formerly of Gossip Girl fame) succeeds as Curley’s wife, a thin, narcissistic woman who spends much of her time chatting up the ranch hands rather than being with her husband. By the time, we do learn a little bit about her when she opens up to Lennie, it’s too late. That’s on purpose, I suppose. Meester had to give us just enough to sympathize with both her and Lennie’s helpless character.
The set itself is really it’s own character. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal previously won a Tony for his set design for August: Osage County and I imagine he’ll get another nomination for this. There may only be five simple scenes in the show, but each one is paid immense attention. From the perfectly constructed California valley with mountain background to the stable that belongs to the African American stable buck Crooks (he’s not allowed in the main house) where chains hang from the ceiling, it’s all about the right amount of detail. Even the penultimate scene in the barn with Lennie and a few stacks of hay is perfect in its simplicity.
The show is also strangely funny (until the end, of course) and that’s due to such a tight script that goes by way faster than you want it to. The audience erupted into laughter at countless times during the first and even second acts. One line towards the end of the show even had the audience clapping in glee. Candy spends some time describing his time spent with prostitutes 20 years prior and George comments that the price he paid for his night was a week’s pay. “A week’s pay? Sure,” Candy replies. “But I worked weeks all my life. I can’t remember none of them weeks.” The line left the audience in stitches both because it was funny, but also because it rang true in the way many people want to live their lives (there’s no time like the present).
Ultimately, Of Mice And Men is a story of love and sacrifice. At the end, Franco finally pulls out all the stops in his final telling of the pair’s dream to have a little place and “live off the fat of the land.” Lennie finally believes it’s coming true. And so do we. It’s easy to see why the novella has become such a classic and why these two characters have become such important parts of the American literature canon. Sure, it’s a simple story, but one that acts as a microcosm for human nature. And there’s no doubt that this stage adaptation succeeded at getting that across.