Friday, April 25, 2014

Of Mice and Men (Longacre)

By Harry Forbes

To cut to the chase, this is a powerful, well-nigh perfect production of a classic American play with impeccable performances from all concerned. John Steinbeck’s tragic tale of an unlikely duo of Depression-era farm hands – intelligent George and childlike giant Lennie – has been often told on stage and screen, but Anna D. Shapiro’s production is as fine as any I’ve seen.

James Franco has gotten the most advance buzz on account of his celebrity and this being his Broadway debut, and in fact, he takes to the stage as if to the manner born. He plays most beautifully opposite Irish actor Chris O’Dowd’s touching, appealing Lennie (the latter’s Broadway debut, too). The co-dependency of the relationship – remarked upon by the other characters – is skillfully drawn, and completely believable. It’s a pleasure to watch how expertly they convey the bond between them. O’Dowd has the showier role, but Franco is every bit as good.

With an evocative set by Todd Rosenthal, artful lighting design by Japhy Weideman, period costumes by Suttirat Larlarb, unobtrusive sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and flavorful music by David Singer, all the elements are in place for superior drama.

The casting is among the best on Broadway this season. Everyone seems tailor-made for their parts, including Jim Norton as the aging farmhand being pressured to euthanize his old dog, and Jim Parrack, Joel Marsh Garland, and James McMenamin as the other hands.

There’s also first-rate work from Jim Ortlieb as the boss. Alex Morf as Curly, his insecure bullying son, and Leighton Meester as the latter’s lonely wife whom the hands take to be a tart but who is actually just a lonely soul longing for companionship.

Ron Cephas Jones is the lone black man on the property, consigned to his own little shack, apart from the other workers, and he shares a fine scene with O’Dowd, Norton, and Franco in the second act.

It’s gratifying to see actors sink their teeth into such characterful parts. The experience can’t help but remind you of how theater must have been in 1937 when the play was first done. If only we had a national theater that could regularly give such plays an airing, provided they could all be done as well as this one, that is!

One appreciates anew Steinbeck’s adaptation of his own novel, as the story of this profound if unorthodox friendship registers as strongly as ever.

There are as many masterfully written scenes here as in the best work of, say, Miller and Williams. The climactic encounter between Lennie and Curly’s wife, where they are speaking at utter cross purposes, is one such brilliant example.

Shapiro’s direction of this male-dominated play is a marvel throughout, and propels the play to the forefront of the season’s current revivals, along with “A Raisin in the Sun.”

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Richard Phibbs
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