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'Of Mice and Men'--and Mastery.

James Franco and Chris O'Dowd may be the big draws (and well deserving of all their kudos) in this emotionally devastating revival of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." But the other star of the show is helmer Anna D. Shapiro, who turns in an impeccably mounted production without a single blemish. The ensemble acting is flawless. The design work is breathtaking. And Steinbeck's Depression-based views on the human connections that are our only hope of survival in desperate times are just as relevant--even imperative--for living through our cruel present day.

The symbiotic relationship between smart, scrappy George (Franco) and his hulking, brain-damaged cousin, Lennie (O'Dowd), is at the heart of this 1937 play (adapted by Steinbeck from his own novella) about the broken, homeless men who wandered the country, living from farm job to farm job, during the Great Depression. The mood of that period is gorgeously but disturbingly rendered by the brilliant creative team assembled by Shapiro: Set designer Todd Rosenthal steps up with the grim vision of an empty, brooding sky hanging low over a vast parched landscape. Japhy Weideman gradually softens that Dust Bowl backdrop with a lighting scheme of earthy brown tones, while David Singer's haunting underscoring links to the lonely desert sounds supplied by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. Truly, this is no-man's land.

As with all the other itinerant workers traveling together on these rough roads, the unlikely friendship between George and Lennie was first forged out of a mutual need for protection. But the two men have gone well beyond that initial dependency. Theirs is a strange but true friendship, one that Franco and O'Dowd hold between themselves with the tenderness of new parents raising a fragile child.

O'Dowd has mastered a small but refined repertoire of facial expressions and gestures that is quite astonishing. Going beyond that physical expressiveness, the depth and understanding he brings to the role render Lennie, quite simply, heartbreaking. The multitalented and ever-so-busy Franco gives a performance that's equally honest and beautifully crafted. His personal magnetism works perfectly for George, a charmer who quietly disarms the whole bunkhouse on the farm where he and Lennie find work. He's not only the dreamer who keeps Lennie content, but the storyteller who tragically comes to believe in his own tall tales.

There's no way to overpraise the nine men and one woman (Leighton Meester, holding her own nicely as the femme fatale) in this ensemble who bring Steinbeck's characters to life. They include Jim Norton's heart-wrenching Candy, the pathetic old ranch hand who can read his fate on the bunkhouse walls; Joel Marsh Garland's burly Carlson, the bunkhouse bully who intimidates Candy into letting him shoot his old dog; Jim Parrack's Slim, the sober peacemaker; Alex Morf's sadistic Curley, who does everything a man can to destroy that peace; and Ron Cephas Jones' blazingly intelligent Crooks, the black guy the white guys won't allow inside the bunkhouse.

Every last one of the men on this farm is given human dignity as well as character dimension by members of this extraordinary company. Which is more than their real-life models got back in Steinbeck's day.

CREDITS: A David Binder, Kate Lear, Darren Bagert, Adam Zotovich, Latitude Link/Piedmont Prods., Raise the Roof, Paula Marie Black, Marc Turtletaub, Ruth Hendel/Barbara Whitman, Marianne Mills/Jayne Baron Sherman, Martin Massman, Judy Kent/Wendy Knudsen, Kevin Niu, Michael Watt, and the Shubert Organization presentation of A PLAY IN TWO ACTS BY John Steinbeck. DIRECTED BY Anna D. Shapiro. SETS, Todd Rosenthal; COSTUMES, Suttirat Larlarb; LIGHTING, Japhy Weideman; SOUND, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; ORIGINAL MUSIC, David Singer; FIGHT DIRECTION, Thomas Schall; HAIR AND WIGS, Charles G. LaPointe; PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER, Jane Grey, OPENED April 16, 2014. REVIEWED April 11. RUNNING TIME: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN. CAST: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Leighton Meester, Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb, Jim Parrack

Of Mice and Men

Longacre Theater; 1,087 seats; $147 top

Director: Anna O. Shapiro

Starring: James Franco, Chris O'Dowd
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Author:Stasio, Marilyn
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater review
Date:Apr 22, 2014
Words:673
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