- Steinbeck Today
John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men hit Broadway for the first time in forty years this past spring with a revival production directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Several award-winning Hollywood actors made their Broadway debut in the show, including academy-award nominee James Franco as George, Chris O’Dowd as Lennie, and Leighton Meester as Curley’s wife. The show ran at the Longacre Theatre from April 16, 2014 to July 27, 2014. It garnered plenty of media attention because of its all-star cast and earned a Tony nomination for best performance by an actor for O’Dowd. Of Mice and Men grossed over 15-million dollars (“Broadway Grosses”), broke a house record at the Longacre, earning $897,852 on April 27, and consistently played to nearly full houses during its run (Simonson, “Broadway Box-Office Analysis”).
While reviews of the play were mixed, the production inspired intriguing commentaries by the stars, who provide interesting insights into the challenges of stage acting and the contemporary theater audience’s reaction to Steinbeck and to the themes of one of his most well-known novels. The commentaries, published on popular culture entertainment and news sites, such as Vice.com and the Huffington Post, had the added benefit of drawing the play further into the public eye in a way traditional theater reviews might not. Theater critics agree that Shapiro’s adaption is no “revisionist revival” and holds closely to Steinbeck’s text (Jones). Likewise, there was overwhelming praise for O’Dowd’s portrayal of Lennie, indicating that his Tony nomination was well-deserved. In contrast, Franco bore the brunt of significant criticism for his portrayal of George, which to some seemed flat and “elusive” (Jones). Nonetheless, in his own discussion of his experiences as the character of George, Franco provides an explanation that demonstrates not lack of stage talent, but rather a deeper appreciation for the elements of theatrical production and the power of Steinbeck’s language to convey meaning and evoke emotion. In a commentary written for Vice.com, Franco [End Page 201] discusses the challenge of acting in a play such as Of Mice and Men, for which taking liberties with script and character is considered downright irreverent:
But the learning of the lines of a classic play—verbatim, as if the lines were holy—makes an actor approach a role in a completely different way from how he or she might tackle it otherwise. If a line doesn’t make sense, or it sounds awkward coming out of your mouth, you can’t change it. You need to find some way of making sense of it.(Franco)
Franco further reveals what he learned from O’Dowd:
[I]f you think your character wouldn’t say a certain line, you’re wrong. [ . . . ] Many screenwriters might argue that their writing works the same way as that of playwright, but narratives in movies and television work differently, and often behavior, action, and silence are better. But on stage, the words rule and propel everything (at least in conventional Broadway productions [. . .]). Behavior and action are important, of course, but they both grow from the text. Stage blocking and stagecraft is there to serve the delivery of the meaning of the words.(Franco)
Those are words of an actor who clearly recognizes what Steinbeck worked very hard to accomplish in his text. The episodic nature of the novel and its carefully and narrowly constructed settings work together to draw attention to the words coming from his characters’ mouths. The most punctuated moments of action in the novel, like Lennie’s snapping Curley’s wife’s neck and George’s shooting Lennie, derive their full power from the rich subtext that has been communicated through the character’s speech. In another review of the play, Franco is quoted as saying, “As an actor, it feels like a very clear ride that these characters go on, in a very solidly constructed way. One thing very clearly leads into the other in a way that everything feels inevitable.” (qtd. in Simonson, “Steinbeck Country”). As a reader, it feels the same. Readers are taken on a journey that makes...