- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - There are hordes of teenage girls waiting outside the Longacre Theatre each night hoping to squeal over uber-muffin James Franco. But true theater fans should be waiting for his co-star to emerge.

Chris O'Dowd, known more for films like “Bridesmaids” and “Friends With Kids,” turns in a very impressive performance as the mentally challenged Lennie in a fine revival of “Of Mice and Men.” Franco? He’s pretty good in his Broadway debut as George, but O'Dowd, in a tricky role, steals the show.

John Steinbeck’s play about friendship and humanity in rural California is smartly directed by Anna D. Shapiro, with evocative sets by Todd Rosenthal and rich lighting from Japhy Weideman.

It’s a tragedy - death and loss are in every scene - but Shapiro has teased out as much humor as is possible. Though the characters are often symbolic, the language is spare and plain, a reflection on the men Steinbeck is writing about. There’s a certain stiffness on stage as men warily gauge each other’s intent.

Franco and O'Dowd play two tragic migrant workers trying to make a life amid the Depression. Because O'Dowd’s Lennie is mentally disabled, Franco’s George acts as Lennie’s guardian. Two men traveling together are clearly rare in this broken part of the world where men seem to drift from job to job.

Lennie is a mountain of a man but has a hard time remembering things and doesn’t know his own strength. He has accidentally killed a mouse just because he liked petting it when we first meet him. More pretty things will die before we’re done.

O'Dowd, his hair shaved and sporting a bushy beard, beautifully conveys Lennie’s innocence, his tics and his toddler-like frustrations. Franco is more standoffish, creating a George who apparently longs to be alone, tries to be decent and squints a lot.

The two men have a heartbreaking routine: They each share the dream of owning and running a ranch - “live off the fat of the land!” - with pigs, vegetables, a cow and rabbits, which makes Lennie squeals with delight. It will be his job to care for the plush rabbits.

The fantasy is infectious. Two other characters ask if they can join: Jim Norton, as the heartbreaking Candy, an old, lame ranch-hand who must surrender his beloved dog to be killed, and Ron Cephas Jones, as the seen-it-all but excluded Crooks. Both are great, two beaten-down men who have seen the worst of humanity but can still dream like little boys again.

Leighton Meester, of “Gossip Girl” fame, has a less good time of it, making an inauspicious Broadway debut as Curley’s wife. Her line reading is flat, her comfort in the character nonexistent. She is never convincing, as the book makes clear, that she as a woman is another member of the disenfranchised. Meester may be as pretty as Franco, but she’s way out of her depth here.

The dusty, weather-beaten sets, which range from river bank to rusty bunkhouse to stable room and barn, the last of which is beautifully realized with just hay bales and some scary-looking steel farm implements hanging high overhead, the mechanisms of fate. Everything is lit as if the sun was perpetually setting.

The final scene is one of the most famous in literature and Franco and O'Dowd do it justice. It’s set where the play begins and it is clear everything led inevitably to this moment. Even so, the crack of gunfire will still startle.

___

Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

____

Story Continues →