Mr. Franco will not be taking pictures,” said a stern security guard to the horde of teenage girls that had congregated by the stage door. My sister, who was at the front of the throng, let out a loud groan, which was soon echoed by a chorus of her peers. It made sense that James Franco wouldn’t be interacting with the crowd that night. Only 24 hours earlier, he had been involved in a scandalous Instagram flirtation with a minor.
“What about Chris O’Dowd?” A middle-aged woman shouted. I agreed with her. He was the star of “Of Mice and Men” that I really wanted to see. Not James Franco, not Leighton Meester, I wanted to see O’Dowd.
Standing outside of the Longacre Theater in the rain in this crowd of seething fans, I felt disoriented. It was hard to step out of Steinbeck’s world and onto the streets of Manhattan, for I had been so taken in by the authentic and heart-wrenching performances of O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd,” “Bridesmaids,” “The Sapphires”) and Franco (“127 Hours,” “Ruining the 2011 Academy Awards,” “Sort of teaching at Calarts”) that I could hardly cope with the dissonance of the bustling city.
Director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) transforms what I remember as a dry and predictable anecdote into a full-fledged tour de force. Her unique perspective brings a wholly new and creative element to the old classic. The book that I vaguely remember as a sad story about rabbits becomes so much more in her talented hands.
The main theme of the play and novel is male companionship or, more specifically, unconventional and unwanted friendship. And who better to symbolize the awkward and unwieldy relationship between clever George and cognitively disabled Lennie than Franco and O’Dowd? They are as incongruous a pair as their characters: Franco, the celebrity-scholar-director wunderkind, and O’Dowd, the Irish classically-trained comedian, hail from drastically different backgrounds, yet they make a formidable duo.
The play takes place on a dusty ranch in Salinas, California and is as much about love and hope as the losses thereof. George and Lennie arrive under dubious circumstances and try to keep their heads down in a foreign place. “This is a bad place, George, I don’t like this place,” Lennie notes, but George begs him to hang on a little longer. They need just a little more money and then they can buy their own place…with rabbits, of course.
Thick with foreshadowing, the plot winds its slow, deliberate way towards the ending we know so well. We must watch Candy hear the gunshot that ends his dog’s life, he must hear George recount the story of the fabled house, and we must see Curley’s wife invite Lennie to feel her silken hair.
The ending was inevitable—even those who haven’t read the book could feel what was coming. The air in the theater hung heavy, even in the sparsely situated comic parts. Some of Lennie’s lines could be deemed as funny, but I was always disturbed when they got a laugh. His brutal, uncut, naïve honesty was a result of the condition that makes him unable to fend for himself, and O’Dowd’s performance was so convincing and genuine that I felt a pang of anger every time a chuckle echoed in the audience.
Every part of O’Dowd’s performance wowed me; not since Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Danny Boyle’s production of “Frankenstein” have I seen such nuanced and inspired physicality. Lennie is big and strong, but he is so completely vulnerable that he needs George to take care of him.
Franco is the perfect foil to O’Dowd’s Lennie; smaller in stature than the “big, crazy bastard,” he is believable as Lennie’s callous overseer and guardian angel. Where Lennie is overstated and larger than life, George is scheming and quiet. Franco’s performance at first seemed hackneyed, just a stereotypical cowboy acting tough, but all that changed when in one particularly moving scene, you see his façade crack, and the real emotions come spilling out.
This subtlety may partially be due to his training in film acting—from my seat in the balcony, I realized he was clenching his jaw and furrowing his brow, actions that read well on camera but not always in a crowded theater. The moment that shocked me the most was the first time he smiled on stage. It was a tragic, forced smile, but it was perhaps the most drastic action he had taken throughout the whole show.
Many of the people sitting around me had obviously come for Franco.
“This is the closest I’ll ever be to James Franco,” a particularly irritating girl giggled.
The celebrity held his own—his slowly waning movie star looks and scraggly beard were a good match for his hard-scrabble character—but O’Dowd, who did not get the red carpet treatment after the show, who didn’t have a posse or a car service waiting for him outside, was the real star.
Lennie, who can’t control his enormous strength, who destroys everything he holds dear, may never get his chance to tend the rabbits, but he leaves an indelible impression on all who witness his tragedy.
With the exception of Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”), the entire cast performed marvelously. James Franco drawing in a crowd and rising to the occasion and Chris O’Dowd showcasing his remarkable knack for the tragic.
“Tell how it’s gonna be, George,” Lennie pleads. And so I did.
Go to the Longacre Theater and watch the great American story unfold, not for the ending, but the endlessly ingenious embellishments along the way.