I find it remarkable that a “well made play” which originally opened on Broadway in 1938 for a moderately successful run of 207 performances should have such an impact on an audience today, more that 75 years later. John Steinbeck wrote the play, based on his novel of the period; that first production was directed by George S. Kaufman and starred Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford, both respected theatre names, but a revival in late 1974 which featured James Earl Jones in the co-starring role of “Lennie” only struggled through 61 performances.
The novel is required reading in many high schools and its current revival at the Longacre Theatre is attracting huge audiences of older citizens who have fond memories of the film version, and young students who are packing the matinees on theatre parties arranged by their schools.
There’s no question that this time out the presence of James Franco and Chris O’Dowd is relevant to the play’s great success. They are two hot film stars, both of whom are on the A list for young audiences. At yesterday’s matinee there were hundreds of these young ‘uns, and they lent excitement to the play’s reception, for it was clear they were not experienced theatre goers, and the twists and turns of the plot, as well as its very moving final moments brought bursts of reaction that could only emanate from a young and ardent audience.
But the outbursts, and the cheers which greeted the curtain calls were totally deserved, for Anna D. Shapiro’s direction of her brilliantly selected cast elevated what could have been a popular melodrama into high drama of the finest quality.
Evocatively designed by Todd Rosenthal, the isolation of the Salinas Valley in California is immediate from the start. As we meet Lennie and George in a secluded glen in the vast landscape, you can almost smell the earth, the land on which they play their first scene. We learn early on that Lennie, mentally impaired, is George’s burden, because he needs constant supervision and guidance, and the two have traveled a long way seeking employment as laborers in the midst of the great American Depression. The carrot dangling before them is the fervent hope that one day they can have a small piece of land of their own, and they will live, as Lenny puts it, “on the fat of” that land.
Lennie is huge and powerful, and loves nothing more than to touch and lovingly caress soft things like mice and rabbits and fur and hair, and when we meet them they are on the run from a recent ranch job, where Lennie had done a “bad thing”, frightening a woman with what he thought of only as affectionate caressing, though he doesn’t understand why he and George had to flee. The relationship between the two men is fraternal in the best sense, and though George occasionally talks of the life he could have had were he not Lennie’s protector, we know he will never willingly leave him on his own.
As played by Franco and O’Dowd, they project everything you could ever want to know about the relationship. They are not lovers, but they certainly are bonded, and each has desperate need of the other. They land a new job on a ranch, and are billeted in a bunk house with four or five other ranch hands. These men are overseen by Curley, the son of the Boss, who is insecure in his recent marriage to a woman he only slightly knows, and she in turn (always referred to only as Curley’s Wife) is bored and lonely living on an isolated ranch with a husband who ignores but covets her, and she spells Trouble with a capital T.
One of the ranch hands is Candy, an old man who is near the end of his life, a frightened soul who latches on to Lennie and George in the hope that they will include him in their plan for a place of their own.
Ms. Shapiro, associated with the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, would seem to be an unlikely choice to stage a play with so many male characters living in a man’s world. But she has so beautifully staged the play that all the characters come alive, and she’s avoided any trace of sentimentality even when it come to something as close to bathos as you can come with regard to the disposition of Candy’s old dog, which he dearly loves. And with the help of Thomas Schall on some vigorous fight scenes, she created air in the bunkhouse that is filled with testosterone.
Chris O’Dowd is child like, never childish. His mind can absorb simple rules and instructions, but he needs constant reminders. He’s capable of remorse and he shows it often; the problem is his cravings are so primitive, he cannot always control them, and he desperately needs to live in a familiar and securely contained world which is difficult to find, which is why the dream of a safe harbor away from the mainstream is his constant companion. Others in the bunkhouse accept him as he is, and when Candy looks like an appropriate partner, one with the money to make their dream at least possible, hope is on the horizon at last. Steinbeck unspools his yarn with dexterity and craft and a feeling for the language and rhythms of these colorful western types. There is one black man among them, and his lower position on the social ladder of the time is vividly captured by the author, and beautifully played by Ron Cephas Jones. Jim Norton, as the elderly Candy, brings his usual insight and tenderness to the role, allowing us to share in his misery and to regard him with respect and empathy. He brings eloquence to a lonely old man who is trying to face a bleak future with dignity.
I’m so glad I saw the play with an audience of the young and the not so young. If only more of our youngsters could be exposed to quality theatre, I think the whole nation would benefit. The excitement of this crowd as they left the building was palpable. The actors and the rest of us had to notice the ebullience in the air during the bows, and it must have made their own day brighter, as it did mine.
Of Mice and Men is onstage thru July 27, 2014 at the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, NYC.
Details and Tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.