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First Nighter: Franco, O'Dowd, Meester Distinguish Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'

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In 1937 the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle award over--get this!--Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Clifford Odets's Golden Boy. Whether it would prevail today is uncertain, but in its revival at the Longacre it remains a solid piece of work, especially in Anna D. Shapiro's solid production starring James Franco, Chris O'Dowd and Leighton Meester making their impressive Broadway debuts.

At the time the novel was published in 1937--two years before Steinbeck brought out The Grapes of Wrath--the country was still hobbling through the Depression. Perhaps more than anyone writing prominently at the time, it was Steinbeck who captured the frustrations of the impoverished working class. Still in his thirties, he was celebrated for his understanding, for his warmth towards the bone-weary common man.

Whether Steinbeck's proletariat sympathies have the same pull today that they did then is questionable. His place in American literature has been much mooted since, but there's no question that his tale of the itinerants George Milton (Franco) and Lennie Small (O'Dowd) maintain the iron grip that the dim-witted, unaware-of-his-own-strength Lennie possesses and that becomes a harrowing problem for the devoted but sorely stressed George.

Plucking the dialogue pretty much verbatim from his best-selling book, Steinbeck handily transferred his tale to the stage. Again George and Lennie--traveling together like the scores of other bindlestiffs scouring California's Salinas Valley (Steinbeck's version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County) for work--arrive at a farm for barley bucking activity. There they encounter a bunk full of other agreeable, hard luck fellows along with the boss's quick-tempered son Curley (Alex Morf) and Curley's lonely new wife (Meester).

She's not the sole lonely figure on this hardscrabble landscape. What transpires when eager-to-please Lennie and basically good-hearted but at-wit's-end George encounter this set of folks is a tone poem of loneliness. (Todd Rosenthal's set, featuring patchwork combinations of corrugated steel is itself a tone poem of dull sturdiness.)

While George and Lennie have each other to soften isolated despair--despite the nearly unendurable pressures this puts on George--not only is Curley's wife longing for someone to talk to, but also complaining about the penetrating lack of companionship are aging Candy (Jim Norton) with only one hand and an old sheep dog (Violet or Blue, according to the Playbill) and black Crooks (Ron Cephas Jones) with his bad back.

To add to the portrait of Depression disconnectedness, bunk boss Slim (Jim Parrack) sizes up George and Lennie and notes that the men he sees almost always travel by themselves--again underlining the sense of ineffable loss that was on Steinbeck's mind.

Actually, whereas in 1936 Steinbeck's story reflected the prevailing mood of national despair, in 2014 what draws a spectator to Of Mice and Men is the continuing need not to be unmoored, adrift. Of course, the George-Lennie bond, which only partially obscures loneliness for them, has its own unmistakable drawbacks, drawbacks that worsen as Steinbeck's denouement approaches and the two men's shared dream hits perhaps inevitable snags.

The place of dreams as an antidote to loneliness is built into the novel, the play--and into the two Hollywood movies and one television treatment that followed. George cherishes his intention to raise enough money to buy 10 acres of land and farm it. Lennie dotes on his chance to raise rabbits on that farm. As Steinbeck's plot unfolds, Candy and Crooks are drawn into George's scheme, although it turns out not as promising as they hope. Curley's wife has her unfulfilled dream, too: making it to Hollywood and into the movies.

(Steinbeck lifts his title from Robert Burns's "To a Mouse," which contains the line, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley." How curious that Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, now in revival around the corner from Of Mice and Men and about a Chicago African-American family on the verge of moving to a new home, gets its title from Langston Hughes's "Harlem" about "a dream deferred.")

The beauty of Steinbeck's themes is that they're embedded in any number of pungent scenes that the cast members--many of them, like Franco, and Meester, making the Broadway bows--bring to vivid, heart-wrenching life under Shapiro's taut direction.

Much of the first act takes place in the bunkhouse. Though it's occasionally invaded by either Curley's wife begging for conversation or Curley angrily looking for his importuning wife, the basically compassionate interaction among the men is preeminent. Even a lengthy objection to Candy's old dog hanging about is expressed with underlying humane concern.

The other sequences so involving that coughs in the auditorium are unusually scarce include: a visit George makes to Crooks's room without understanding whites and black aren't supposed to mingle; George's ill-timed conversation with Curley's wife in the barn where he's just inadvertently killed a puppy Slim had given him; and George and Lennie's closing return to the cave where George has instructed Lennie to hide if anything bad happens to him.

Now about all those debuts. Although Franco overdoes the level of his disappointment with Lennie at the opening, he pulls back through the remaining two acts to give a shaded view of a strong, moral man who has an obligation he can't refuse to honor and yet knows could be his undoing.

O'Dowd brings all manner of subtlety to Lennie. What he does with his fluttery hands alone is acting inspiration. He sees that Lennie's feelings are all unguardedly on the surface and expresses that through mood changes often simultaneously funny and sorrowful.

The debuting Meester conveys the confusion that Curley's wife is in. She's perplexed by her husband's jealous rages but also aware she can use her wiles as a possible way to find someone with whom to carry on a friendly exchange. Meester plays the beaten to a wounded parenthesis wife as hard and getting harder but still vulnerable. Also, grateful welcomes go out to Parrack, Morf and Joel Marsh Garland, all of them B'way first-timers giving the impression they're skilled old-timers.

As for the performances by Broadway and off-Broadway vets Norton and Jones, Norton's Candy, pained by his and his dog's increasing uselessness, is a heart-breaking portrait of fearful old age. Jones's also aging, wild-haired Crooks is a more bitter yet insightful codger. No matter where or in what productions these two actors submerge themselves, they're never less than immaculately professional.

If Of Mice and Men is piercingly about hopelessness--and it is, as written during a period when hope was a desired but uncommon commodity--the hopelessness is achingly realized in this revival. But its very successful realization is a cause of hope for the rebounding human spirit.