Whereas “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” the Broadway revival of “Of Mice and Men” couldn’t get much better.
Unlike most literary classics, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” in which each chapter is set in a fixed location, like a scene, can be easily adapted for the theater. Steinbeck himself prepared the stage version, which premiered on Broadway in 1937, the same year the novella was published.
Against a Depression-era backdrop, it explores how the itinerant farmhand George tries to take care of the mentally feeble but physically robust Lennie, whose fondness for touching nice things leads to danger. Its conclusion is heartbreaking.
It’s strange that the play is so rarely performed while the book is still required reading in many high schools. Although it has a depressing tone, that doesn’t stop “Death of a Salesman,” another modern tragedy, from getting regular revivals.
The new Broadway production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) with a cast of Hollywood names (James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester, all making their Broadway debuts) alongside stage regulars (Jim Norton and Ron Cephas Jones), is genuinely gripping, gritty and emotionally shattering.
O’Dowd, an Irish actor best known for appearing in comedic films such as “Bridesmaids” and “This is 40” and in TV’s “Girls,” makes a convincing, full-bodied transformation into the innocently excited, gentle giant Lennie, appearing with a shaved head and heavily bearded.
Franco, a regular presence on film, in the tabloids and even academia, acquits himself very well as George, stressing the character’s introspective nature, frustration in trying to protect Lennie from the outside world and the loneliness and guilt that leads him to take on the challenging role of his protector.
Meester, best remembered as Blair on the television series “Gossip Girl,” is quite effective as Curly’s Wife, who desperately seeks attention from the farmhands as a result of her absent husband.
“Of Mice and Men” plays at the Longacre Theatre through July 27.
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