Yeah. Don’t proceed any further if–for some crazy reason–you haven’t read Of Mice and Men yet.
James Franco aimed the prop Luger at the head of Chris O’Dowd, who sat on the stage, staring off into the audience. The dread in the Longacre Theater built up as Franco kept the gun aimed at O’Dowd, while the hands of the Irish actor alternated between pointing and slightly pawing the air, in search of the imaginary farmland his character envisioned out in the distance. Silence. Gut-wrenching silence.
I flinched—and I know I wasn’t the only in the audience who did. O’Dowd fell forward in the direction of the left orchestra, his shaved crown on display for that side of the theater as the stage turned to dark. A spotlight shone over a pensive Franco, whose eyes looked up into the sky. The end.
Even though I knew how Of Mice and Men ended, it was still a jarring experience to see that scene acted out in the latest Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, whose engagement at the Longacre Theater ends on July 27, 2014. Director Anna D. Shapiro stayed true to Steinbeck’s words; watching the play felt like I was speed re-reading the novella again, which is fine for a Steinbeck work. Set designer Todd Rosenthal had more creative license, where his detailed sets—Crooks’s room had a world map, while the bunk room for the white workers was pretty bare save for a tiny poster
James Franco (George) receives top billing for the performance, but it was Chris O’Dowd who just crushed his role as Lennie. O’Dowd’s voice, posture, gait, and gesturing—the way he just uses his hands to convey the wonder, fear, and hope that Lennie experienced throughout the play—just captured everything I imagined about Lennie when I first read Of Mice and Men in high school. There were just so many little things that O’Dowd did, including the heap of saliva his mouth dripped onto the stage when Lennie fought Curley, which forces you to keep an eye on him in each scene, whether or not Lennie is directly involved in the action. The transformation is even more stunning if you watch O’Dowd’s interactions with fans waiting for him at the stage door, standing tall and confidently and cracking one-liners in his Irish accent as fans attempt to take pictures with him or get him to sign their Playbill.
O’Dowd’s performance doesn’t take away from Franco’s, who was excellent in his own right. Franco was at his best in the final scene; his glum tone as he told the tale of the farmland George and Lennie would buy was matched by pained regret and pacifying smiles on his face. However, and I don’t know if this is due to perception or his haircut, it was difficult for me to believe that it was George out there in the Salinas Valley, not James Franco; George just seemed to look a little too contemporary compared to the other characters on stage.
On the flip side, Leighton Meester’s transformation from Blair Waldorf to Curley’s Wife went far beyond than I thought it’d go, complete with doll-like hair and a drawl. The climactic encounter between Lennie and Curley’s Wife—the most jarring scene in entire play, despite the use of the gun in the end—drove home that theme of loneliness. In the entire play, Curley’s Wife gets called a “tramp” or a “tart” or some other sexist term because her attempts of getting the attention of anyone, including her husband, for conversations are misinterpreted as attempts of seduction. When lonely Curley’s Wife finds lonely Lennie—all his animals are dead and he pretty much has a no-talking policy to keep him and George out of trouble—in the barn, conversational hell breaks loose.
Curley’s Wife talks about leaving Curley and the terrible ranch life. Lennie responds by talking about burying his dead pup. Curley’s Wife continues with her future life in Hollywood. Lennie frets about George being angry at him. Curley’s Wife zeroes in on the new clothes and being in pictures for free. Curley brings up his dream of using his and George’s stakes to buy the long-sought farmland.
Each character opened up the floodgates and let out all the pent up thoughts and dreams and grievances. No listening needed; Curley’s Wife and Lennie only needed someone else to be in the presence of their words. Talk, talk, and talk, until Lennie brought up how he loves to touch soft things. And—tragically—that was the only part of the conversation where Curley’s Wife listened to what Lennie said and engaged him on it. She guided his hand to her hair and let him stroke it. She then screamed to get him to stop, but that only scared him. What happened afterward would be enough to ruin Raggedy Ann dolls for anyone.