This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001



(photo by Richard Phibbs)

Chris O’Down and James Franco both make their Broadway debut in revival of John Steinbeck classic (photo by Richard Phibbs)

Longacre Theatre
220 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 27, $37 - $147

Chris O’Dowd steals the show as an endearing gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength in Anna D. Shapiro’s riveting new production of John Steinbeck’s American classic Of Mice and Men, the first Broadway revival of the 1937 play in forty years. O’Dowd stars as Lennie Small, a large man with the mind of a child who has a penchant for petting nice things. He is out on the road with his best friend, George Milton (James Franco), a stand-up guy who takes care of him and finds work for them as migrant ranch hands. They had to leave their previous job in a hurry after Lennie caused trouble involving a young woman and her pretty dress, and they are now headed for another ranch, where they’re hoping to save up enough money bucking barley bags to get a little plot of land for themselves. George regularly makes Lennie tell them about their best-laid plans: “Some day we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house, and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs and . . .” George says before being interrupted by Lennie, who chimes in, “and live off the fat of the land! And have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden. And about the rabbits.” Among the people they meet at the ranch are Candy (Jim Norton), an older man with a mangy dog; Slim (Jim Parrack), the jerk-line skinner who takes a liking to George and Lennie; Carlson (Joel Marsh Garland), a stout fellow who can’t wait to shoot Candy’s dog; Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones), a bitter black man whose color segregates him from the rest of the men; and the Boss (Jim Ortlieb), who just wants everyone to do their jobs with as few problems as possible. But the biggest danger is the Boss’s son, Curley (Alex Morf), a small, angry man with a chip on his shoulder, both about his size as well as how some of the guys look at his very attractive and flirty wife (Leighton Meester). However, despite trying so hard, Lennie finds himself in trouble yet again, leading to a tragic finale.

(photo by Richard Phibbs)

George (James Franco) and Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) share a rare laugh in OF MICE AND MEN revival (photo by Richard Phibbs)

Thoughtfully directed by Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County, Domesticated) with grace and tenderness, the show focuses on the concept of single-handedness, emphasizing the loneliness experienced by all of the characters. O’Dowd, as Lennie, uses his left hand almost like a conductor’s baton to help express himself and get his words out; while he remains by George’s side, he desperately wants something to pet and take care of, be it a mouse or a dog or other preferably living thing. Candy, played by the ever-dependable Norton, has only one hand, and he can’t imagine facing life alone if he allows Carlson to kill his dog. Crooks, so used to everyone steering clear of him because he’s black, is surprised when first Lennie, then others, suddenly come into his room, which is away from where the rest of the men stay. “You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me,” he tells Lennie, who comes in anyway. When Curley attacks Lennie, it’s Curley’s hand, the one he keeps extra soft for his wife, that Lennie grabs. Even the “couples” in the play deal with the issue. Curley and his wife are never seen together, always looking for each other. And Slim makes a special note of Lennie and George’s relationship, which he alone seems to understand. “Hardly none of the guys ever travels around together. I hardly never seen two guys travel together,” he says to George. “You know how the hands are. They come in and go on alone. Never seem to give a damn about nobody. Jest seems kinda funny. A cuckoo like him and a smart guy like you traveling together.” Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the nearest town is Soledad, which means “loneliness” in Spanish and is where the men go to seek paid female accompaniment.

(photo by Richard Phibbs)

Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) and Curley’s wife (Leighton Meester) talk about their dreams in OF MICE AND MEN (photo by Richard Phibbs)

Film and television stars O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Girls), Franco (127 Hours, Freaks and Geeks), and Meester (Country Strong, Gossip Girl) avail themselves well in their Broadway debuts; Meester adds a deep richness to Curley’s unnamed wife, who is often portrayed as more of a floozy, while Franco is smart and solid alongside O’Dowd’s mesmerizing performance, a pair previously played by such duos as Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford, Kevin Conway and James Earl Jones, George Segal and Nicol Williamson, Robert Blake and Randy Quaid, Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., and Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. The rest of the cast is stellar as well, with particularly fine turns by the ever-dependable Norton (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Seafarer) and the Texas-born Parrack (True Blood.,Todd Rosenthal’s sets range from the bank of the Salinas River, where George and Lennie take a load off, to the bunkhouse, which looks more like a prison, representing the death of the American dream in the wake of the depression. Seventy-seven years after it first arrived on Broadway, Of Mice and Men is still a powerful, and relevant, examination of loneliness, friendship, and the struggle to survive in hard times.

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