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Of Mice and Men (04/16/2014 - 07/27/2014)


 

AP: "Chris O'Dowd Shines in 'Of Mice and Men'"

There are hordes of teenage girls waiting outside the Longacre Theatre each night hoping to squeal over uber-muffin James Franco. But true theater fans should be waiting for his co-star to emerge.

Chris O'Dowd, known more for films like "Bridesmaids" and "Friends With Kids," turns in a very impressive performance as the mentally challenged Lennie in a fine revival of "Of Mice and Men." Franco? He's pretty good in his Broadway debut as George, but O'Dowd, in a tricky role, steals the show.

John Steinbeck's play about friendship and humanity in rural California is smartly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, with evocative sets by Todd Rosenthal and rich lighting from Japhy Weideman.

It's a tragedy — death and loss are in every scene — but Shapiro has teased out as much humor as is possible. Though the characters are often symbolic, the language is spare and plain, a reflection on the men Steinbeck is writing about. There's a certain stiffness on stage as men warily gauge each other's intent.

Franco and O'Dowd play two tragic migrant workers trying to make a life amid the Depression. Because O'Dowd's Lennie is mentally disabled, Franco's George acts as Lennie's guardian. Two men traveling together are clearly rare in this broken part of the world where men seem to drift from job to job.

Lennie is a mountain of a man but has a hard time remembering things and doesn't know his own strength. He has accidentally killed a mouse just because he liked petting it when we first meet him. More pretty things will die before we're done.

O'Dowd, his hair shaved and sporting a bushy beard, beautifully conveys Lennie's innocence, his tics and his toddler-like frustrations. Franco is more standoffish, creating a George who apparently longs to be alone, tries to be decent and squints a lot.

The two men have a heartbreaking routine: They each share the dream of owning and running a ranch — "live off the fat of the land!" — with pigs, vegetables, a cow and rabbits, which makes Lennie squeals with delight. It will be his job to care for the plush rabbits.

The fantasy is infectious. Two other characters ask if they can join: Jim Norton, as the heartbreaking Candy, an old, lame ranch-hand who must surrender his beloved dog to be killed, and Ron Cephas Jones, as the seen-it-all but excluded Crooks. Both are great, two beaten-down men who have seen the worst of humanity but can still dream like little boys again.

Leighton Meester, of "Gossip Girl" fame, has a less good time of it, making an inauspicious Broadway debut as Curley's wife. Her line reading is flat, her comfort in the character nonexistent. She is never convincing, as the book makes clear, that she as a woman is another member of the disenfranchised. Meester may be as pretty as Franco, but she's way out of her depth here.

The dusty, weather-beaten sets, which range from river bank to rusty bunkhouse to stable room and barn, the last of which is beautifully realized with just hay bales and some scary-looking steel farm implements hanging high overhead, the mechanisms of fate. Everything is lit as if the sun was perpetually setting.

The final scene is one of the most famous in literature and Franco and O'Dowd do it justice. It's set where the play begins and it is clear everything led inevitably to this moment. Even so, the crack of gunfire will still startle.


AP
04/17/2014

New York Daily News: "Of Mice and Men"

With his recent frat-boy antics and Renaissance-man boasts, James Franco earns eye rolls. But he deserves an appreciative nod for his Broadway debut in “Of Mice and Men.” The “127 Hours” Oscar nominee and Chris O’Dowd do first-rate work in this stirring revival.

Set in Depression-era California, John Steinbeck’s 1937 American tragedy follows drifters and dreamers on a collision course with life’s cruel reality. Lennie (O’Dowd) has the mind of a child and the strength of an ox — a lethal combination. George (Franco) is his reluctant but dutiful caretaker.

The buddies land jobs on a ranch and want to save dough to buy their own little spread — rabbits, Lennie’s favorites, included. Cash from Candy (Jim Norton), an elderly hand, puts the dream in reach. If George and Lennie stick to the strategy and avoid hot-headed Curley (Alex Morf) and his flirty wife (Leighton Meester) they’ll be golden. But you know what they say about best-laid plans.

Steinbeck’s story isn’t exactly subtle. Director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) packs shading and meaning into an evocative production in which danger lurks everywhere. “It’s mean here,” says Lennie. And he’s right. The bunkhouse is a tinderbox. In the barn, a steel-jawed gizmo for hefting hay bales looks like it could grab you and tear you apart.

Shapiro’s ace cast grips, too, but not terrifyingly. “Gossip Girl” alum and stage newcomer Meester brings out the yearning and sadness of the unnamed wife. Tony winner Norton adds dignity and gravity as sad ol’ Candy, who loses his dog and his hope. Ron Cephas Jones and Jim Parrack impress respectively as Crooks, the lonely black worker, and Slim, the level-headed foreman.

O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”) is such a likable and endearing actor that he automatically brings goodwill to a role. The Broadway rookie’s thoughtful performance as the loud, clumsy and sweet overgrown child creates a sense of imminent catastrophe.

As George, who’s torn between protectiveness and outrage, Franco’s confident, straightforward, no-frills performance works just right. He can do a lot with a look. What finally reads on his face is what George and we have known all along: Lennie isn’t George’s anchor — he is his rudder. Neither man has a chance without the other.


New York Daily News
04/16/2014

New York Post: "The 'Mice' is right -- mostly"

There may be no more strikingly different debuts than the ones James Franco and Chris O’Dowd are making in “Of Mice and Men.”

As George, the wandering ranch hand in John Steinbeck’s hard-luck 1930s California, Franco is all surface, never giving us any insight into what drives him — he’s a very handsome blank.

O’Dowd, on the other hand, disappears into Lennie, George’s simple-minded friend. His newly shaved head and bushy beard help distance him from the amiable, goofy figure we knew from “Bridesmaids.”

But it’s more than that: O’Dowd helps us know and empathize with a gentle giant desperate for contact, one who can pet a puppy so hard that it dies.

“Dumb bastard like he is, he wants to touch everything he likes,” George tells one of their fellow workers. “Jest wants to feel of it.”

The scenes between the two men are key to the show, but they’re off-balance here. You can see why Lennie sticks with George, the protector who spins fairy tales about them buying a farm together. But Franco’s unable to make us understand what’s in it for George.

Lennie’s combination of childlike innocence and prodigious strength leads to a tragedy that — decades after Steinbeck wrote it in 1937 — hasn’t lost an ounce of intensity.

Director Anna D. Shapiro and her “August: Osage County” scenic designer, Todd Rosenthal, make the setting feel very real — this is a visually rewarding show — especially when the action moves to the men’s bunkhouse.

It’s a man’s man’s man’s world. They can be supportive, but in the end, everybody’s trying to mark their turf.

The worst is the boss’ son, Curley (Alex Morf), a bully who compensates for being short by picking fights. He’s also painfully aware that his pretty young wife (Leighton Meester, late of “Gossip Girl”) is a flirt who teases the men’s boundaries — down to visiting the quarters of the lone black employee (Ron Cephas Jones).

One of the most intense scenes involves elderly handyman Candy (a fine Jim Norton) and the sad-eyed mutt he’s had for years. Carlson (Joel Marsh Garland), a ranch hand who shares their cramped quarters, offers to take Candy’s dog outside and shoot it because, well, it’s old and useless, and it stinks.

The minute we spend waiting to hear that shot is almost unbearable.

It’s clear why Candy fears being cast off as well. As Steinbeck puts it so powerfully, this world isn’t for the weak.


New York Post
04/17/2014

New York Times: "Hey, George, We Made It Back to Broadway"

See those two guys sitting up there on the stage — the big, slow feller and his smaller, quicker pal? Don’t you somehow get the feeling they’ve been crouched at that campfire forever? And that you’ve been watching them for just about as long?

Such responses may bedevil you as you settle in for the respectable, respectful and generally inert revival of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” which opened on Wednesday night at the Longacre Theater, with the film stars James Franco and Chris O’Dowd making their Broadway debuts.

Even if you’ve never seen a previous production of this play — or the movies it inspired, or the 1937 novella they’re based on — you’re likely aware in some corner of your mind of the odd couple at its center, George (Mr. Franco), the feisty dreamer, and Lennie, the childlike Goliath. They’re as planted in our country’s collective imagination as Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Beavis and Butthead.

Almost from the moment Steinbeck set these itinerant farmhands roaming through the Salinas Valley of California during the Depression, they took on the carved-in-stone stature of national symbols, of something that is us (or U.S.), and bigger than us. No wonder “Of Mice and Men” became an instant staple of high school reading lists, or that its main characters’ irascible, interdependent relationship — first translated to Broadway in 1938 — has been the stuff of parody for almost as long.

This means that Mr. Franco, Mr. O’Dowd and their director, Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), face the daunting task of turning folk heroes as fixed as the heads on Mount Rushmore back into pulsing flesh. This shouldn’t be impossible. After all, actors regularly tackle, and often make us rethink, endlessly interpreted characters like Hamlet, Stanley Kowalski and Willy Loman.

Yet somehow Ms. Shapiro’s handsome, meticulously designed production (featuring impressive Walker Evans-evoking sets by Todd Rosenthal) feels about as fluid as a diorama in a history museum. And its two undeniably talented leading men, though known as quirky and adventurous screen stars, here wear their archetypes like armor.

The presentation is lucid, stately and neutral. Such traits might make this revival an excellent audiovisual aid for middle-school instructors who are teaching Steinbeck’s novella. Habitual theatergoers, though, shouldn’t expect the kind of revivifying interpretation that makes revisiting a classic feel essential.

The book “Of Mice and Men” was custom-made for stage adaptation, written, Steinbeck said, “in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” It slid easily onto Broadway (under the direction of George S. Kaufman, no less) the same year it was published as a book.

At the time an admiring Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times, “Although many people may shy away from the starkness of the fable, every one will admire the honesty of the author’s mind and the clarity of its statement.” The clarity of characters and themes writ large made “Of Mice and Men” a natural for cartoon spoofery, and references to George and Lennie’s yin-and-yang dynamic have shown up in everything from Bugs Bunny shorts of seven decades ago to episodes of “South Park.”

Lewis Milestone’s 1939 film, starring Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr., still has considerable power; in it you feel the pathetic fragility of hope of a nation only beginning to recover from disastrous financial hardship. But by the time Gary Sinise remade “Of Mice and Men” in 1992, in a movie starring him and John Malkovich, there was no disguising the smell of mothballs.

Any anticipatory excitement around the current stage incarnation comes from its stars’ marquee status. Mr. Franco (a polymath artist whose films include “Milk” and “127 Hours”) and Mr. O’Dowd (the genial love interest in “Bridesmaids”) are both, in different ways, heartthrobs.

(Footnote: Photos of Mr. Franco’s broodingly beautiful face can be seen both on the front of Playbill, where he shares the frame with Mr. O’Dowd, and its back, where he appears as a black-tie spokesmodel for a Gucci fragrance.)

Yet here they generate little discernible chemistry, even when the show’s one female character, a desirable wench of a farm wife portrayed by Leighton Meester, shows up to make trouble. Neither actor overplays, which is considerate, but they do remain largely monolithic.

Lennie is a role that is pretty hard to get wrong, if the performer has the right physical dimensions. Mr. O’Dowd gives the expected gentle-giant performance, though he uses his left hand in surprisingly delicate gestures that bring affecting grace notes to Lennie’s lumbering presence.

Though he sports a Yosemite Sam accent, Mr. Franco is often understated to the point of near invisibility. It’s a tight, internal performance begging for a camera’s close-up. And only in the play’s second scene — in a bunkhouse, where Lennie retells George about the dream farm they’ll someday own together — did I sense a warming current of affection between the characters.

Things liven up a bit in that bunkhouse, with the introduction of supporting characters. They include the ranch owner’s quick-tempered son, Curley (Alex Morf); a one-handed old-timer, Candy (the venerable Jim Norton); Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones), a black man who lives in isolation in a cabin filled with books (in this version); and a mule skinner named Slim (an easy, convincing Jim Parrack).

Then there’s Curley’s wife, who is said to be a slatternly, provocative sex kitten. The glamorous, pencil-thin Ms. Meester (of “Gossip Girl” fame, and not embarrassing) provides no evidence of being anything of the kind.

Given the grim events that eventually befall her character, this may have been a conscious choice. We don’t want to be left thinking, “Well, she was asking for it.” But “Of Mice and Men” presents such a fatalistic canvas to begin with that you have to feel some crackle of resistance to the destiny that grinds these folks down.

Though Mr. Franco musters a single, perfect tear for the play’s tragic climax, I only came close to shedding one. That was in the first act, when a dog (a real one) is led offstage to be shot because it stinks. That dog seemed to have true fear and bewilderment in its eyes. It felt, well, human, in a way none of the people did, and my heart sank when I knew it wouldn’t be coming back.


New York Times
04/16/2014

Newsday: "Of Mice and Men review: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd shine"

The inevitable headline is that James Franco -- who seems determined to do everything and be everywhere without breaking a sweat -- is making his Broadway debut in John Steinbeck's 1937 "Of Mice and Men."

But the real news is that Franco is just one fine element in this straightforward powerhouse of a revival, directed by Anna D. Shapiro with inspiring trust in the impact of classic storytelling.

Productions of the old-fashioned Depression-era drama are rare enough to make this a risky choice for Franco and Chris O'Dowd, the Irish stage actor best known in America for such comic mass movies as "Bridesmaids." What's more, Franco plays George, basically the straight man to O'Dowd's flashier role of Lennie, the slow-witted gentle giant who likes to pet soft things a bit too hard.

Steinbeck wrote his own stage adaptation of his novella, better known from school curricula and at least three movies -- including the 1992 remake starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. Part buddy tragedy, the plot is a hard lesson about our need to make hopeful plans, and retell them in comforting stories, in the least hopeful times.

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in the Salinas Valley. There isn't much nuance in George, the drifter, except for his loyalty to a friend whose lack of impulse control keeps running them out of towns. Franco has an easygoing presence and a dark, cranky, cowboy voice and, except perhaps for overly manicured facial hair, never suggests he might be smarter or hipper than his character.

O'Dowd's Lennie is a big, childlike mouth-breather whose deliberate speech contrasts touchingly with his delicate fingers, which appear to dance -- at times too heavily -- with a mind of their own.

Jim Norton has a pathetic majesty as the old farmhand who can't save his old dog but thinks he just might save himself. Leighton Meester ("Gossip Girl") brings an impressive core of loneliness alongside her eroticism as the only woman, the wife of the boss' son. Ron Cephas Jones has the repressed fury of the intelligent outsider as the shunned black man.

The sets by Todd Rosenthal begin and end in a clearing of tall, dried grass. Mountains and heavy clouds leave just a sliver of sunlight in the middle -- symbolic, perhaps, of the dreams that find temporary safety when the men get work in the troubled bunkhouse. No matter how well we know the story, it is hard not to hope that, just maybe, things will turn out better this time. This may be one good definition of a classic.


Newsday
04/16/2014

USA Today: "Broadway's new 'Of Mice and Men' starry and stinging"

It's hard to think of a character in American fiction more heartbreaking than Lennie, the gentle, doomed giant in Of Mice and Men. Even if you've never read John Steinbeck's 1937 novella, or seen the play he adapted from it, you'll sense early on that this guileless creature who loves soft animals — and can crush them easily, without meaning to — is destined for tragedy.

In the new Broadway production of Mice (* * * ½ out of four stars), which opened Wednesday at the Longacre Theatre, Lennie is played by Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, known for rather lighter fare such as the films Bridesmaids and Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel. You wouldn't necessarily recognize him here; his wavy locks shorn to a buzz cut, O'Dowd stoops, suggesting a man either hiding or apologizing for his physical height and might. When Lennie is excited or curious, the fingers on his left hand curl, as if grasping for information he cannot comprehend; when he's afraid, or ashamed, he flinches, like a child being scolded.

It's a vivid, sensitive performance of the piece with director Anna D. Shapiro's staging. Having deftly served the rapid-fire, often caustic wit in August: Osage County and The Motherf----- with the Hat, Shapiro approaches the very different milieu here determined to articulate the more simply expressed but still piercing longings and regrets of Steinbeck's men (and one woman).

She's aided by an excellent cast, which includes two other familiar faces new to the Main Stem. James Franco plays George, the wandering laborer who is Lennie's constant, if often frustrated, companion and protector. Having secured new jobs for them as ranch workers after Lennie innocently bungled their last arrangement, George is weary of his friend's demands but emotionally bound to him.

"You get used to goin' around with a guy," George tells the good-hearted Slim (a graceful, robust Jim Parrack). Franco infuses the typically, deceptively straightforward line with a wry, rueful edge that reflects George's own feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.

George and Lennie's hopes to make a fresh start are immediately threatened by the ranch owner's pugnacious son and the son's restless bride, referred to simply as Curley's Wife and played by Gossip Girl graduate Leighton Meester. Though the men identify her as trouble — and Steinbeck, on the page, gives them little argument — the actress and her director are keen that we see her own neediness, and Meester brings flickers of softness and even warmth to the role.

Stage vets Jim Norton and Ron Cephas Jones are predictably superb as two longtime ranch hands, Candy and Crooks. Though physically disabled and further burdened by, respectively, old age and racial discrimination, both are moved by George and Lennie's dreams toward glimmers of hope.

It's a credit to Shapiro and her company that, in this revival of Mice, hope comes through as powerfully as its ultimate futility.


USA Today
04/16/2014

Variety: "'Of Mice and Men' Starring James Franco, Chris O'Dowd"

James Franco and Chris O’Dowd may be the big draws (and well deserving of all their kudos) in this emotionally devastating revival of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” But the other star of the show is helmer Anna D. Shapiro, who turns in an impeccably mounted production without a single blemish. The ensemble acting is flawless. The design work is breathtaking. And Steinbeck’s Depression-based views on the human connections that are our only hope of survival in desperate times are just as relevant — even imperative — for living through our own cruel times.

The symbiotic relationship between smart, scrappy George (Franco) and his hulking, brain-damaged cousin, Lennie (O’Dowd), is at the heart of this 1937 play (adapted by Steinbeck from his own novella) about the broken, homeless men (bindlestiffs, they were called) who wandered the country, living from farm job to farm job, during the Great Depression.

The mood of that period is gorgeously but disturbingly rendered by the brilliant creative team assembled by Shapiro. Set designer Todd Rosenthal steps up with the grim vision of an empty, brooding sky hanging low over a vast parched landscape inhospitable to man or beast or any living thing. Japhy Weideman gradually softens that bleak backdrop with a lighting scheme of earthy brown tones that becomes the only warmth to be found in this pitiless environment. David Singer’s haunting underscoring links to the lonely desert sounds supplied by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Truly, this is no man’s land.

As with all the other itinerant workers traveling together on these rough roads, the unlikely friendship between George and Lennie was first forged out of a mutual need for protection. Quick-witted George finds them farm work and protects Lennie from being abused or exploited, while protecting everyone else from Lennie’s uncontrollable brute strength. In turn, Lennie’s muscle makes sure no one messes with George. But George and Lennie have gone well beyond that initial mutual dependency. Theirs is a strange, but true friendship, one that Franco and O’Dowd hold between themselves with the tenderness of new parents raising a fragile but beloved child.

Although he lives in the body of a giant (an illusion that costumer Suttirat Larlarb helps maintain), Lennie has the mind of a child, the sweetness of a child, and a child’s need to be cared for and comforted. O’Dowd has mastered a small but refined repertoire of facial expressions and gestures (one hand movement has the delicacy of an artist) that is quite astonishing. Going beyond that physical expressiveness, the depth and understanding he brings to the role render Lennie, quite simply, heartbreaking.

The multitalented and ever-so-busy Franco gives a performance that’s equally honest and beautifully crafted. In this relationship, his carefully articulated George is the storyteller and the keeper of the dream they share of buying a little farm, working the land, and living on the crops they grow and the animals they raise. Franco has the kind of storytelling voice that can make anyone believe in his dreams. But Lennie’s belief in this dream of a farm has become his single fierce passion. With his childlike need to stroke soft, living things (like the poor field mice he pets to death), he’s become fixated on the rabbits that George has promised to let him care for on their fantasy-farm — a fixation bound to end in tragedy.

Franco’s personal magnetism works perfectly for George, a charmer who quietly disarms the whole bunkhouse on the farm where he and Lennie find work.  He’s not only the dream-keeper who keeps Lennie content, but the storyteller who tragically comes to believe in his own tall tales. There’s plenty of foreshadowing in the taut, well-built plot, which takes its tragic toll when George and Lennie’s fantasy comes up against the cold reality of a bunkhouse full of real people.

There’s no way to overpraise the nine men and one woman (Leighton Meester, holding her own nicely, thank you, as the femme fatale) in this ensemble who bring Steinbeck’s characters to life. They’re a motley crew, one and all, and most are truly memorable. That would be Jim Norton’s heart-wrenching Candy, the pathetic old ranch hand who can read his fate on the bunkhouse walls, as well as Joel Marsh Garland’s burly Carlson, the bunkhouse bully who intimidates Candy into letting him shoot his old dog. And Jim Parrack’s Slim, the sober peacemaker, along with Alex Morf’s sadistic Curley, who does everything a man can to destroy that peace. Not to mention Ron Cephas Jones’ blazingly intelligent Crooks, the black guy the white guys won’t allow inside the bunkhouse.

Every last one of these men on this farm is given human dignity as well as character dimension by members of this extraordinary company. Which is more than the real-life models for these men got back in Steinbeck’s day.


Variety
04/16/2014

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