John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a tale of two unlikely friends, George and Lennie, who move from ranch to ranch across California in search of work, and their dream to “live off the fat of the land”. Decades after its first stint on Broadway, this twentieth century American classic is back. Against the backdrop of the 1920’s Great Depression, it risks being out-dated. However, the timeless chemistry between its protagonists gives the story much of its soul.
The play sees the Broadway debuts of Leighton Meister, Chris O’Dowd and James Franco. Many will go in feeling dubious that these Hollywood stars will overwhelm such a stripped back play. But what gives it leverage is acclaimed director Anna Shapiro (August: Osage County), who whips the two leads into shape – bringing the essence of the story alive in some fantastic performances.
Franco, the play’s star, and arguably its selling point, is an actor, writer and director. Is there anything he cannot do? For the first ten minutes of this play you might be thinking yes, Broadway. Indeed in its opening sequence where George and Lennie are introduced, the dynamic seems forced – particularly on George’s part. They have fled from their previous employment because Lennie stroked a young woman’s dress and wouldn’t let go. This resulted in an attempted rape accusation. While it becomes clear that the George protects Lennie, Franco seems cold. As such, the relationship appears more strained, as opposed to affectionate. But as the story progress, Mr Franco redeems himself. As an actor more accustomed to the nuances of camera, he manages to play George with craft and restraint– this works well with the stripped back nature of the story.
O’Dowd however, is a revelation. Known for his roles in The IT Crowd and Bridesmaids, his comedic timing is prominent in his portrayal the friendly giant, Lennie. He doesn’t treat the character in a patronising way, and his hand gestures show an attention to detail which borders on eccentric.
In comes the much anticipated Gossip Girl alum Leighton Meister as Curley’s Wife. With all the talk of Curley’s wife giving someone “the eye”, Meister is pretty dead beyond those eyes. She not only has a tendency to over-act, but in doing so, fails to convey the various layers which make up this character. Altogether, this renders an annoying, uncomfortable performance. She seems way out of her depth. Steinbeck’s texts have a real economy of language, and his characters are very direct. When the supporting characters go overboard, this is detrimental to what should be a plain-spoken story.
This is somewhat salvaged by the aesthetics of the set, which was designed by Todd Rosenthal and Japhy Weideman. The bleak backdrop is underscored by a lighting scheme of earthy brown tones, which ultimately accentuate the play’s tragic arc.
Put simply, Of Mice and Men is a must see.