The tirelessly prolific James Franco can check off another box on his ever-expanding résumé: Broadway star. And he gives a creditable performance as George, the itinerant ranch hand in a solid new revival of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella-turned-play Of Mice and Men. In his Broadway debut, Franco shows a relaxed stage presence and real charisma, though his occasional explosions of anger or frustration seem to rely more on turning up the volume dial rather than digging for any deeper nuance. At times, George’s motivations can be as veiled as the actor’s trademark heavily lidded eyes.
The real surprise in Anna D. Shapiro’s finely staged production is Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) as George’s mentally challenged travel companion, Lennie. The gifted comedic actor brings a studied and skillful physicality to Lennie, a gentle giant with a stubbly shaved head who’s not aware of his own strength even as he compulsively touches soft things ? a scrap of velvet, a puppy, a young woman’s neck. O’Dowd’s riveting performance is a study in underdeveloped impulse control: He frequently reaches out his hand with crooked fingers, then just as quickly withdraws. Though his native Irish accent occasional pokes through, O’Dowd makes Lennie sympathetic without ever stooping to caricature.
The cast also includes the winsome Tony winner Jim Norton (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as an aging ranch foreman and the terrific stage vet Ron Cephas Jones as the African-American stable hand Crooks — a tricky role that, like Lennie, could easily veer into offensive stereotype. Alas, Gossip Girl alum Leighton Meester, in her stage debut, leaves a rather wan impression as the flirtatious young wife of the volatile rancher’s son (Alex Morf). Meester is strikingly pretty (and waifishly thin) but her characterization is missing both coquettishness and danger. Where is the spark of a young woman who longs to be “in the pictures” or the gumption of one who’d pack a valise to run away for just that reason?
Even so, Steinbeck’s time-tested narrative ? and the power of his language ? exert an inevitable pull. That’s especially true in the moving second act, which builds to an explosive conclusion that should be familiar to the millions who read the book in junior high. Rest assured, it still packs a wallop. B