Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 16, 2014
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Suttirat Larlarb. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Original music by David Singer. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Hair & wig design by Charles G. Lapointe. Cast: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester, with Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack, Michael Dempsey, Kevin Jackson, Erica Lutz, Stephen Payne, and Jim Norton.
John Steinbeck's own stage treatment of his sobering novel (both of which appeared for the first time in 1937) could scarcely be better presented under present-day circumstances than it is here. Director Anna D. Shapiro, who's made a recent career in New York of charting the negative and positive shades of gloom in August: Osage County, Domesticated, The Pain and the Itch, and more, is precisely in tune with Steinbeck, showing how both his Great Depression and our own era today are afflicted with a parched society that fosters parched souls.
Steinbeck proved this primarily through his central duo of George and Lennie, the former an energetic and enterprising man and the latter his mentally challenged friend blessed (cursed?) with immense strength, who arrive at a California ranch trying to make their meager livings in pursuit of their fantasy of a quiet farm and a quieter life together far from the pain they know. But it's every bit as evident in the others they meet, from the aging but kindly Candy, who has nothing left but his ancient dog, to the black stable-hand named Crooks to the boss's fight-picking son Curley and Curley's new wife, who, so she claims, is just looking for a man to talk to. Deprived of financially and spiritual profitability for their industry, they're all forced to fashion a rough-hewn society together and hope everything sorts itself outwhich, of course, it's hardly destined to.
George is willing to temporarily accept the status quo, and Lennie doesn't understand it any better than he understands why he was chased out of his last town (he stroked a woman's dress and was accused of rape), or why the tiny animals he so loves keep dying in his care (he crushes them while trying to pet them), which makes neither a fine fit for life on this ranch. But they need money and a place to stay, and they consider even the modest offerings they find to be better than nothing.
Steinbeck outlines how such desperation causes disasters, and no shortage of those occurs. But he also adds in overtones of spirit and optimism that could lead one to believe, even in the hardest times, that anything was indeed possible. This constant warring of the grim reality of the economically ravaged landscape with the golden light of promise forever in the distance is what prevents both the book and the rigorously faithful play from becoming completely depressing, and lets it be a clear-eyed critique of both the necessity of the so-called American Dream and how easily it can become a nightmare.
The sets (Todd Rosenthal), costumes (Suttirat Larlarb), lights (Japhy Weideman), and sound (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) adroitly capture the suffocating dust and sun of the Salinas Valley and the people who live there. Shapiro brings out in these design elements and everything else the feeling of ramshackle despondency that most catapults you into this time and place. The opening image, of an endless undeveloped vista broken only by the dissolving light of dusk, provides a haunting harbinger of the desolation to come. Even in the internal scenesthe barracks, Crooks's shack, the barnthere's always a similar conflict of light and dark reminding you that nothing is ever entirely your friend or entirely your enemy.
Better still are the performers, who inject their portrayals with this same kind of duality, and there's not a weak link to be found. Jim Norton is richly moving as Candy, finding in the man both rugged agitation and an ingratiating, avuncular charm. Jim Parrack is terrific as Slim, engaged and engaging as one of the few men George and Lennie can truly trust. James McMenamin and Joel Marsh Garland elicit darker shadows from the men they play, but do so without ever getting too broad.
The same is true of Alex Morf, who pushes Curley's jittery jealousness just to the limit but not beyond, and Ron Cephas Jones as a just-barely-wistful Crooks you sense is always keeping his deepest passions in reserve. And as Curley's wife, Leighton Meester leaves you forever wondering whether she's the victim or the aggressor, an uncertainty from which the second act greatly benefits.
Particularly brilliant are James Franco and Chris O'Dowd as George and Lennie. Franco, a TV and movie headliner, effortlessly embodies George's self-destructive masculinity, as well as his devotion to and exasperation with his friend; he's believably shattering as both an independent and a dependent with a heart that reaches beyond reality's grasp. O'Dowd does beautiful work as the simple-minded Lennie, never pushing too hard or commenting on his disability, and bearing throughout exactly uncomplicated innocence that makes the man endearing and unsettling.
Their chemistry together is redolent of America's at its best: a union of opposing forces that, when respected, can pierce through strife, but otherwise are barely under control. They powerfully represent Steinbeck's complete, shimmering spectrum of American opportunity, with remarkable wonders and limits, and unlock in Of Mice and Men the heat and the heartbreak of potential recognized but unrealized. This is not, and never has been, a story that delights, but if bleakness can in fact be edifying, it is here as it rarely is anywhere else.