This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Set in California during the depression era of the 1930s, John Steinbeck’s classic tale (a novel which he adapted into a play) about yearning and despair is a parable, near Biblical in its nature. Anna D Shapiro’s revival is handsomely mounted, using four elaborate sets, and features star names, better known for their film and television work, perhaps hoping that their presence will draw audiences to a play in which any trace of a feel good factor stays firmly in the wings. George and Lennie are peripatetic ranch hands and we first meet them as they are preparing to bed down for the night in the open air, prior to starting work on a new ranch the following day. George is solid and practical, but Lennie, a giant of a man with immense physical strength, is a simpleton with faltering memory and an obsession for small animals – mice, rabbits, puppy dogs – which, not knowing his own strength, he literally loves to death. They arrive in the bunk room of their new workplace intent on staying out of trouble and earning the dollars that they need to fulfil their distant dreams. They meet Candy (a deeply moving performance from Jim Norton), an aged, part disabled worker who clings forlornly to his dying dog, knowing that he too faces a future of further decline, but without the hope of someone putting him out of his misery. It is in Candy’s words that Steinbeck’s pleas for a more benevolent society, one which cares for its sick and needy, are heard most eloquently. James Franco’s George is a dreamer, but also a realist. He instantly recognises the boss’s flighty daughter-in-law (Leighton Meester) as trouble waiting to happen and carefully resists temptation. However, the other characters all question why George hangs around with Lennie and Franco’s performance does not really explain this to the audience either. The big revelation in this production is Chris O’Dowd. In less skilled hands, Lennie could be just a grotesque ogre, a one-dimensional imitation of Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, but here we have a real human being, deserving of sympathy and compassion even at his most wayward. O’Dowd draws on his grounding in light comedy to bring out the humour in the character, but then demonstrates how fine a dramatic actor he has become by making every gesture and every facial expression speak of Lennie’s inner turmoil. The supporting performances are also strong. Alex Morf as the boss’s oafish son rants in jealous rage as he seeks his potentially unfaithful wife and Ron Cephas Jones, as the only black ranch hand, consigned to separate living quarters, is dignified and defiant in his isolation. As is common when a novel is adapted into a play, there are times when the drama feels over-plotted and contrived, with events seeming to move too quickly. However, Steinbeck’s vivid and unforgiving writing always surmounts such problems. Laden with metaphors and making extensive use of animal imagery, this is a stark and discomforting work, building to a tragic, if inevitable conclusion. The impact of the shocking climax is diminished just slightly by Franco not quite finding his character’s emotional heart, but Steinbeck’s messages come through strongly. In a country still fiercely debating welfare, health care and criminal justice, this potent play has plenty to say more than 80 years after it was written.
Performance date: 1 May 2014