Monday, May 5, 2014

Of Mice and Men: Depression Dream

James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men (Photo: Richard Phibbs)

Depression plays are a distinctive genre in American theatre, and Of Mice and Men, which John Steinbeck fashioned from his 1937 novel, is perhaps the finest example written by anyone other than Clifford Odets. (Odets was the undisputed master of the form, and Awake and Sing!, produced two years earlier than Of Mice and Men, was his masterpiece.) Steinbeck’s book is practically a play – it’s mostly dialogue and it has a clear dramatic arc – so the transposition was a natural one. The play opened on Broadway while the novel was still on the bestseller lists. The original production starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as the physically strong but mentally challenged Lennie, whom George has known since childhood and has always cared for and protected. There was a marvelous film version in 1940, directed by Lewis Milestone, with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. and an Aaron Copland score that I’d call the greatest music ever written for a movie. It was remade in 1992 with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and there have been a couple of TV adaptations, including a memorable version in 1968, directed by Ted Kotcheff, with George Segal and Nicol Williamson. But perhaps because it’s shown up so often on the screen, it’s rarely revived on stage, so Anna D. Shapiro’s beautiful new Broadway production is an occasion. (The last New York mounting was in 1987.)

Lennie and George are itinerant northern-California farm workers who dream of settling down on a small farm where Lennie, who has a passion for small, soft things, can tend rabbits. It’s so little to ask that you can hardly believe it’s beyond their reach, but that’s the way Depression plays work: the universe is profoundly out of joint and fate laughs in the face of even the most modest dreamer. So instead of a measure of contentment these men – along with aging, crippled Candy, whom they meet on a ranch in the Salinas Valley and who offers to bankroll them with his savings, and the black stable hand Crooks, who is looking for a place where he won’t feel like an outcast – get tragedy. People have been moved by the tenderness and humanity of Steinbeck’s story for more than three-quarters of a century, and though his more grandiose efforts to poeticize the struggles of the proletariat, especially The Grapes of Wrath, have always felt phony and inflated to me, this one is the real thing.

Working with superb set and lighting designers, Todd Rosenthal and Japhy Weideman respectively, Shapiro goes for the classic look of 1930s Broadway dramas, on the cusp between realism and expressionism. That’s especially clear in the first scene of act two, when first Lennie (Chris O’Dowd) and then Candy (Jim Norton) and George (James Franco) gather in the tiny shack where Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) resides and is used to being left to his own devices. Shapiro keeps the actors upstage to emphasize the claustrophobic space, varying the stage picture by using height and placing Candy and George against the pillars so their figures pop out slightly. But the entrance of Curley’s Wife (Leighton Meester), the only woman on the ranch and a threat to the male camaraderie – because she’s married to an angry, jealous little man whose insensitivity to her feelings makes her miserable and restless – wreaks havoc with the held-back configuration and the actors scatter downstage. Shapiro works both with and against the grain of Steinbeck’s realism; that is, she does whatever she can to lyricize it, and the staging of the scene in Crooks’s cabin is a perfect example. So is the top of the penultimate scene, in the barn, which begins with Lennie, who doesn’t know his own strength, in despair because he’s accidentally killed the pup that Slim the mule skinner offered him out of his litter. O’Dowd articulates Lennie’s grief and fear (at what George will say) in an almost balletic fashion, the upper part of his body sculpting the air as he moans over what he’s done. As everyone who ever read Of Mice and Men in a high school English class knows, Steinbeck employs a simple but powerful pattern of motifs to signal the doom that falls on these hapless and entirely sympathetic characters: the unintended death of the pup at the beginning of this scene leads inevitably to Lennie’s unintended smothering of Curley’s Wife at the end of it. And the pup is linked to Candy’s ailing, dilapidated dog, shot out of mercy by one of the other men outside the bunkhouse, both a symbol of Candy himself (who has been kept on to sweep up after the others, an accident on the ranch having rendered him useless for any other work) and a foreshadowing of Lennie’s death at George’s hand at the end of the play so that he won’t suffer a much crueler death at Curley’s.

Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester (Photo: Richard Phibbs)
O’Dowd has a shaved head and a heavy beard that make him physically unlike other Lennies. He reads his lines differently too – with more humor and an elfin lightness. His hands are always moving, his fingers twitching as if they were plucking a tune on an invisible instrument or picking something unseen out of the air. O’Dowd’s performance is as charming as it is poignant. Franco, though, is a disappointment as George, except in a few scenes (notably the final one). He plays the character as so stern from the outset and so worn down by all the scrapes he’s had to pull Lennie out of that he’s a scold; you don’t start liking the guy until late in the first act. Burgess Meredith and George Segal both brought an instinctual warmth to this role; the specifically Depression-era sorrow in Steinbeck’s tale was located in their stricken faces. If you’re looking for it here, you have to shift to Jim Norton, the staggeringly talented Irish actor who adds Candy to an impressive list of portrayals on the New York stage in the last couple of decades. Steinbeck has written the scene where Candy waits in horror on his bunk for the gunshot that will end his dog’s life as a gift for a character actor (no one who’s seen Milestone’s film is likely to have forgotten the way the Group Theatre-trained Roman Bohnen played it), and Norton’s depiction of it is almost unbearable to watch. So is his response when he finds the body of Curley’s Wife and realizes that the dream of that little farm will be buried with her.

The conception of Curley’s Wife, who doesn’t even have a name, is essentially misogynistic, though Steinbeck redeems her with a speech about her Hollywood aspirations. Meester, known to TV audiences as Blair Waldorf on Gossip Girl, is very sweet in the part, and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb has accentuated that sweetness and vulnerability with silky print dresses and underscored the sad hopelessness of her dreams by giving her cherry-red heels that match her lipstick – the thought that she imagines herself in the movies when she’s so resolutely small-town is wounding. But Meester doesn’t go far enough with her big scene in the barn, though it’s possible that she was simply off the day I saw the show; she didn’t seem to be able to get the rhythm of the scene right. It’s a little beauty of a scene: Lennie and Curley’s Wife are like a low-rent American version of Chekhov characters, so preoccupied with their own problems that they need to say them out loud but not really listening to each other.

Except for Ron Cephas Jones, who strips the rage and misanthropy from the character of Crooks and doesn’t substitute anything else (I couldn’t make sense of the performance), the rest of the cast is first-rate. Shapiro has cast the personnel on the Salinas ranch with an eye for rugged, pioneer-American looks, down to Jim Ortlieb, who also gives his lines as the Boss (a one-scene role) a poetic lilt. As Slim, Jim Parrack has an outsize handsomeness – he looks like the leading man in a cowboy serial from the period – and a pensive quality, as if he were continually trying to puzzle out the universe but lacked the words to frame what’s swirling around in his head. And though his Slim is utterly lacking in vanity, he commands the ranch hands by dint of sheer presence; you can see why George shows him immediate respect, and why, when he extends his hand to Lennie, O’Dowd dips his head, as if he were doing obeisance to him. Alex Morif has the right compactness and eruptiveness for the bully Curley; he bursts onto the stage, permanently steamed, cutting through the atmosphere of a room like an alarm clock you can’t turn off. Joel Marsh Garland, who plays Carlson (the one who shoots Candy’s dog), has a big, fleshy face and a smile of surpassing warmth. And James McMenamin fills out the role of Whit, doing more with the speech about the pleasures of the local whorehouse than any actor I’ve ever seen attempt it. McMenamin is a gifted actor – I saw him play George in David Cromer’s unforgettable Our Town – but he’s such a natural that it’s easy to underrate him. We think of Steinbeck’s play as a duet, but the importance of the ensemble in it can’t be overrated because, as he’s conceived this story, the dream of the two main characters is really the dream of every man who works on that ranch – the small, impossible dream of community, of a respite from loneliness.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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