Chris O'Dowd & James Franco in "Of Mice and Men"
(photo: National Theatre Live)
Most current and former high school students are probably already familiar with the story of two itinerant laborers, one a bit of a control freak and the other a gentle giant who didn’t know his own strength when petting a tiny rodent, a newborn pup, or a soft lock of hair. They are the lead characters in the 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” written by Pulitzer Prize winner John Steinbeck, who once referred to it as “a kind of playable novel.” Thus it should come as no surprise that within less than a year after its publication it appeared on the Broadway stage, adapted by none other than Steinbeck himself. It was swiftly followed by a 1939 film version, subsequently remade in 1992. In play form, however, it was not revived on Broadway until 1974, then unproduced until just this past season, when three stars from other artistic worlds aligned, all in their Broadway debuts. It was this version that National Theatre Live chose as its first worldwide HD broadcast from a venue other than London and shown at a movie theater near you. Nominated for two Tonys, and directed by Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony winner herself as Best Director for “August: Osage County”), it was a wise choice, not least for the celebrity of its players.
The original working title of the book was “Something That Happened”, which is rather detached for such a dark and ominous work. The book, film and play all take place in the 1930’s in Salinas Valley, California (“just south of Solidad”, or “solitude”), where many migrant workers suffered, poor but proud, from homelessness and hunger. The basic story centers on the relationship between the cynical George Milton (James Franco, of “127 Hours”, “Milk”, and a few dozen other varied projects), and the friend for whom he cares, the mentally challenged and ironically named Lennie Small (Chris O’Dowd, of “Bridesmaids” and his personally-created British television series “Moone Boy”). The pair share the American dream of their someday having a small place of their own. They move from job to job escaping the consequences of Lennie’s unpredictable actions. At their current job on a ranch, the boss’ daughter-in-law (identified only as “Curley’s Wife”), a very flirtatious woman (Leighton Meester of “Gossip Girl”) takes an interest in them. While George refers to her as a “tramp”, Lennie’s reaction is simpler: “gosh, she’s pretty”. Thus begins an inexorable spiral into the “something that happened”, a tragic something indeed.
The casting of Franco (surprisingly tender when it counts) and O’Dowd (deservedly nominated for Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards for this performance) was serendipitous, but the real standout is the supporting character of Candy (former Tony winner Jim Norton), who steals every scene he’s in, even when silent. Meester is also fine as the flirt oblivious to the danger at hand, as are the remaining members of the cast, Slim (a hulking but understanding Jim Parrack), Crooks (a heartbreaking Ron Cephas Jones), Curley (an anxious Alex Morf), Carlson (an amusing Joel Marsh Garland), the Boss (a menacing Jim Ortlieb), and Whit (a canny James McMenamin). The technical crew are all terrific in their contributions, from the complicated Set Design by Todd Rosenthal, to the eerily atmospheric Tony-nominated Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman, to the Original Music Composition by David Singer, Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb, Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and extraordinarily choreographed Fight Direction by Thomas Schall.
As Steinbeck admitted, this is less a historic work (though loosely based on an actual event he witnessed) than a symbolic one. Many critics saw it as too sentimental, even as they described the characters as more animal than human. But as the literary essayist Susan Shillinglaw once noted, friendship is portrayed as “the most enduring relationship, love at its highest pitch”, but also an escape from home, marriage, commitment. This echoed what writer Frederick C. Mills wrote about these men who hated to travel on the road alone: “denied wives, or families, or circles of sympathetic friends, this feeling can only be partially satisfied through the institution of partners.” Although one of the workers says to George that it’s “funny how you and him string along together”, Steinbeck made sure it was clear that George had a tendency to visit the occasional brothel, lest we draw some other conclusions about this male bonding. But it can’t be denied that their bonding was a special one, even if George was a bit too overbearing in his caring for Lennie. In the end, this is an enduring and deeply moving testament to the true American spirit.