John Tiffany’s production of Glass Menagerie, reinforced by a rave review from Ben Brantley, was a huge hit that may also be a game-changer in reminding audiences of the greatness of Williams’ first success, and returning it – for now, at least – to a more central place in the canon. (Fine with me – I think Glass Menagerie is one of the masterpieces of American drama, and I’m always happy to see it celebrated.)
Of Mice and Men didn’t fare as well. This time, Brantley’s review was unenthusiastic (though by no means the pan you might have expected if you read Franco’s twitter response, in which he called Brantley a “little bitch”). But the Times was not the only negative review. And, unfortunately, I think Brantley is right.
I had my doubts going in, largely because I expected the play itself – Steinbeck’s own adaptation of his novella – to be a little creaky. But I was relieved on that front. Even today, Of Mice and Men is surprisingly stage-worthy.
My next surprise (well, a surprise given that I doubt I’d encountered it since high school) was how much of the play deals with race and sex. The race is mostly confined to the attitude of the farm workers to Crooks, the stable hand who, by implication, is the only African American character on stage.
But the sex is everywhere. It’s overt in the presence of Curley’s Wife, about whom there is scarcely a comment that doesn’t describe her as a slut; but it’s also visible in the worker’s wonderings about Lenny and George’s friendship. And of course, there’s the general tension of a group of presumably heterosexual men living and working together with little or no female presence.
As powerfully as all of this hit me through the language, little of it comes through in the production.
My reaction to the first scenes was fairly positive. O’Dowd was exceptionally good as Lennie – not playing for easy sentiment, but detailed, and fully engaged in the action. Franco’s film likability was intact here, and he seemed generally right for George, downplaying his own handsomeness. Franco, O’Dowd, and Leighton Meester (Curley’s Wife) all were working earnestly to keep their movie star-ishness in check.
Unfortunately, they rarely got deeper than their first impressions – especially odd, since Shapiro is a veteran of the Steppenwolf Theatre, where actor work is everything. But where’s the subtext here? This Of Mice and Men looked like a production seen in the middle of the rehearsal period – characters and situations were painted in bold strokes, with subtleties and relationships still to be fleshed out.
Though Franco initially seemed fine, there was little growth – especially problematic as the character’s growing awareness of the inevitable has to register to the audience. O’Dowd, good as he was, seemed less effective in the later scenes (it didn’t help that the key moments of physical violence were awkwardly staged).
In some ways, Meester – who got the weakest reviews – interested me most. She wasn’t a conventional vamp (thank heaven – it’s a too-easy take on a character who deserves something more compassionate), but a pretty, awkward girl with grandiose, unrealistic dreams. But on the other hand, Curley’s Wife needs to be a disruptive presence in the room, and Meester’s exceptional thinness (wrong for both period and character) makes her fail to register.
The visual pictures are always handsome – inevitably evoking Dorothea Lange’s dustbowl photographs – though the lighting is over-bright, and too much of Shapiro’s staging is front-and-center (including the entire first scene, which Franco and O’Dowd play almost at the lip of the stage).
It turns out to be an apt metaphor for the whole show, which lacks shadows, dark corners, and journeys off the main road. James Franco may be the world’s most famous graduate student – perhaps it’s fitting that this reverential but nuance-free Of Mice and Men looks like the Great Books Version.