Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Of Mice and Men Starring Chris O'Dowd and James Franco - Review

Recently I saw a preview of Of Mice and Men.  On a seemingly unrelated note, about 2 years ago I saw Harvey.  The connection is that each featured a major star.  And each star was a bit of a stretch for their role.  Jim Parsons was young for the part, and yet I thought he did incredible acting and I bought into his character. James Franco didn't fully sell me on his character.  He was adequate, but I find him generally to seem disengaged, kind of out of focus- and that was the case here, where he seemed particularly muted.  In part he was muffled by the strength of his costar. Every word and movement made by Chris O'Dowd elicited a strong response from me.  That reaction was visceral in theater, it reverberated through the whole audience.  Often O'Dowd drew laughs, sometimes very big laughs, from the crowd, and often that laughter was of the complicated, bittersweet, variety- at least I hope it was.

I have been fond of the book and movie versions of this play for some time.  I read it as an adolescent and it struck me, as did The Pearl, which I read when I was even younger.  Steinbeck was at master of being deceptively profound, hiding how deep he was by making his message something that most anyone who gives it a chance will feel in their bones.

The next paragraph contains a quasi-spoiler, and the two after that are complete spoilers.

To me some of the play did not hold my attention.,  In part I blame it on Franco for being bland (particularly in contast to his co-star). (One could make the argument that he has the harder role and is the straight man and is by definition going to take the backseat, but I don't believe that. His character, George, is a strong and stubborn guy, and played right you would feel his strength as much as you feel the presence of his sweet and challenged, childlike friend Lennie. In part, though, I think some of the play didn't hold me because I knew the ending.  The ending is so powerful, unnerving, so pregnant with provocative things to contemplate that if you know it's coming it's hard to not be a little bored by the smaller incidents, those scenes building up to the  inevitable yet shocking end..

Someone I know got in a fight with his teacher when he was in elementary school.  The teacher had the class share their thoughts about George killing Lennie.  It was a loaded question, as the teacher felt that George's choice made sense and the whole class agreed with her.  Except for this friend of mine.  He was sure that it was wrong. It was murder. It doesn't matter to him that that it was a mercy killing. It doesn't matter to him that there was a mob that was sure to find and kill Lennie.  My friend was upset that the teacher put propaganda in everyone else's head and that she and the class wouldn't hear the truth that my friend was saying.  My friend's mother was proud of him for speaking up and sticking with the truth without being swayed. I respectfully disagree with my friend.

Steinbeck told a beautiful story about two friends.  He painted a portrait of a supra-natural love.  It is a bond that defies logic, a lofty and noble connection between two seemingly earthy and simple men.  In the end George talks to Lennie with love in his voice, and then pulls the trigger, motivated by that same love. Whether or not I would do that or whether or not I would advise George to have done that is not the point. The point is that it is a deeply moving denouement. (One minor complaint- the gunshot sound in this production seemed to me to be too loud.

I am glad to have seen this play.  I was blown away by O'Dowd's performance.  No one else in the cast grabbed me the way he did- but they all worked well enough, some more than others.  As was the case with Harvey, I did not see this play because of who it starred.  These were both old plays that I held in my heart for ages and was excited to see on Broadway.  (You can read my pseudo review of the Harvey revival here, and a piece about my exchange with Todd Haimes of the theater that presented Harvey - here.)

Of Mice and Men is a part of my life and now I have the experience of seeing the play on Broadway (and the commemorative mug I bought) to add to my Of Mice and Men life-file. The staging worked for me. They had several sets that they morphed one into another masterfully.  The sets were very well done, gritty, real, just right.The play as whole was highly impressive and heartbreakingly touching. I recommend it.


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