Last night I saw the Broadway production Of Mice and Men starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. I wish I could tell you that I was in New York and watched a live production, but alas that is not the case. First of all this play finished it’s run on July 27th, this past summer. No, I watched a screening of the play thanks to National Theater Live. I watched it at my local AMC theater although I’ve seen other plays through them at the Angelika. NTL films each production in front of a live audience in the theater. Cameras are placed throughout the auditorium to make sure that the cinema goer gets an excellent view of the play. And I can attest to the fact that they do a wonderful job of making the play come alive for a cinema audience. It is a wonderful service they provide as well, bringing the best of London and Broadway to audiences who would never otherwise have the opportunity to see such productions. The ticket price was $12.50, comparable to a movie ticket price and although I’ve not yet had an opportunity to see a play on Broadway or London’s West End, I’m sure that is much less expensive than those ticket prices!
This production played at the Longacre Theater in New York and was directed by Anna D. Shapiro. If you are unfamiliar with Of Mice and Men, it was written by Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author John Steinbeck. I have to admit that I was a bit unsure of wanting to see this particular production because I’ve always been very “meh” about James Franco. I love the story and I didn’t want to see something that would be disappointing. However I love Chris O’Dowd and although I’ve never seen him in anything other than a comedic role, I know that comedy is much harder to play and get right than anything else and if you are great at comedy you are most likely great at drama as well. This movie is set during the depression era and the dialogue, mores, and attitudes reflect that. It is very much a period piece, but one that I believe resonates with issues still around today.
James Franco plays George and Chris O’Dowd plays Lennie. They are a couple of laborers moving from job to job, making just enough money to get by, but never able to break out of their position in life. Part of the reason for that is Lennie, who is clearly mentally disabled. It is unclear what the nature of that disability is, but Lennie is basically a gentle giant, but clearly unknowing of his own strength. He loves to pet soft things and often hurts them because he doesn’t know how to control his strength. He is always remorseful, but remembering is not easy for him so he doesn’t learn. George and Lennie have known each other since childhood and look out for each other, although George does most of the looking out. But woe to anyone who tries to hurt George. James Franco was fine as George. He brought an intensity to the role that worked well and he very convincingly played both his frustration at having to deal with Lennie and the problems he caused, as well as his very obvious affection for him. I enjoy seeing an actor that I was “meh” about doing so well in a role. Chris O’Dowd was wonderful as Lennie. He absolutely portrayed a man with mental disabilities without ever coming even close to caricature. He was very funny in his manipulation of getting what he wanted from George. I’ve worked with kids with disabilities and I can tell you that while they may not be as “smart” as most of the population they can be quite gifted in using what they do have to get what they want, and Mr. O’Dowd portrayed that perfectly. His mannerisms and ticks were completely believable and his sincere sweetness, fear of those who may hurt him alongside his fearsome strength and inability to control that strength when afraid were fantastic to watch. George and Lennie have a dream that sustains them. They will save enough money to buy a small parcel of land with a small house where they can raise their own vegetables, have a few chickens and cows and live off the “fat of the land.” And there would be a rabbit hutch and Lennie would get to tend to the rabbits. That is very important to Lennie and one of the things George uses to help Lennie remember what he needs him to. Of course two men traveling together raises some eyebrows and there is more than one reference to the two of them being gay made by some of the characters at their new ranch job. There is never an obvious answer given to that assertion. George never says one way or the other. And while I’ve never gotten that kind of vibe from the book or productions I’ve seen, including this one, I know that people’s perceptions are very different and that may be a conclusion they make. Either way it makes no difference to the story or the connection between these two men.
Other standouts in the cast include Jim Norton as Candy, an old one-handed ranch hand who fears being put out into the cold when he’s no longer able to “swamp out” the bunk house. When Lennie forgets and speaks about he and George’s dream of their own place in front of Candy, Candy offers the $250 he was given as compensation for the loss of his hand in a ranch accident to help buy a place if they will let him join them. Jim Norton was excellent in this role. His helplessness, anguish and uncertainty in the face of being old and soon no longer useful, with no one to take care of him was heartbreaking. And his joy at maybe having a place to retire was infectious. Leighton Meester played Curly’s wife. Curly is a ranch hand with a bad attitude and is constantly accusing the other hands of giving his wife the “eye”. I find it interesting that Curly’s wife is not even given a name in the play when the black man, who is not allowed to sleep in the bunkhouse with the other men or eat with them because he is black has a name. He is called Crooks because of his crooked back. The racism in this play is strong, casual and normal for the time. Yet a woman character who is absolutely pivotal to the story is not even allowed a name while a man of color, who is treated like less than a person is given one. Gives one pause. I’ve heard of Leighton Meester, but never actually seen anything she was in. She did a nice job playing Curly’s wife. That character is often accused of being bad and directly responsible for the tragedy that occurs, but I see her as a young woman in a bad marriage to a nasty man, trapped in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do and no one to talk to. She is desperately looking for a connection with somebody. Anybody. She is called a tart because she is always wandering into the ranch hand’s bunkhouse or into the barn, places where a woman shouldn’t be. She defends herself saying she just wants to talk to somebody and she is demonized for wanting to make a connection with other people. The problem of women taking the blame for the actions of men still persists with rape culture as a perfect example of that. It is too often viewed as the woman’s fault if she is raped rather than the blame being placed squarely where it belongs, on the rapist. And women are too often told they should modify themselves and their behavior to avoid rape rather than yet again placing the blame on rapists. Ms. Meester did a great job playing a young girl who needed connection with someone, but not understanding how to go about getting it in a world extremely limited for women and one that so often crushed their dreams. Her encounter with a scared and shaken Lennie was very powerful, both of them excited to be interacting, neither of them understanding each other at all or the consequences of that.
The rest of the cast was very good as well and supported the main players and the story with believable characters. The devastating and emotional ending to the play had me in tears and affected not only the audience, because most of the cast had tears in their eyes even during the curtain call. In fact I’ve had tears in my eyes writing about much of this. One cool thing was Candy’s old dog came back on stage after everyone but Jim Norton had left and got a huge applause. As of now National Theater Live is only showing last night’s showing of this play on their website but I know they usually do encore showings of the plays they broadcast. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys good theater, good movies, excellent storytelling and acting. You can find National Theater Live here where you can get email updates of upcoming shows or follow them on Twitter here or Facebook here to get updates. Have you seen a broadcast from National Theater Live? Would you be willing to watch a play through this venue? Let me know in the comments!