George (James Franco) and Lenny (Chris O’Dowd) are a team, working as hired hands on farms. But Lenny, who has a mental disability, got them fired from their last job when his attempt to pet the skirt of a girl was mistaken for a sexual assault. They had to leave in a hurry, but have found a new job already, which starts off well enough with their coworkers Candy (Jim Norton) and Slim (Jim Parrack), and less well with their boss Curly (Alex Morf) and his flirty wife (Leighton Meester). George and Lenny are dreaming of buying a bit of land together and becoming independent – a dream that suddenly becomes very attainable when Candy offers to pitch in. But attainable isn’t the same as attained and money isn’t the only issue.
This version of Of Mice and Men really was a very straightforward production that focused on making the characters and their actors shine. And shine they did.
Shapiro obviously didn’t feel the need to “improve” the original play. Instead she takes Steinbeck’s script and sets it in scene in a way that I thought Steinbeck would have approved of if he had seen it. Usually I’m not that into conservative productions, but in this case it fit the play and its mood. Plus, it did come with a beautiful, if very simple, set design that also nicely mirrors the simple lifestyle George and Lenny live.
Since you don’t have to focus on some more or less radical re-interpretation, it gives the characters a lot of room and so they become the center of the play, maybe even more so than the novella intended. That way Shapiro really manages to show the many nuances of George and Lenny’s friendship. But it also meant that she didn’t work against the problems of the original – like the flatness of the only woman and the only black man in the play.
Of course that wouldn’t have been possible without the cast to set it into action. Fortunately, we don’t have a problem in that regard (except, maybe, Jim Parrack, who I really adore but who I feel was miscast as charismatic and monosyllabic Slim. Maybe because he’s just too much Hoyt for me). Both James Franco and Chris O’Dowd are great and make the friendship between their characters seem entirely real. It was wonderful to watch.
The only thing that didn’t work out for me at all was the audience. I was really taken aback by some of their reactions. [SPOILERS] For example, when Lenny accidentally kills his puppy and is all torn up with grief about it, there was actual laughter in the audience, probably because Lenny’s speech isn’t the most refined, or I don’t know what. [/SPOILERS] In any case it shows a grievous lack of empathy for one of the protagonists, probably because he is disabled. And that almost soured the play for me.
But only almost, since I was mostly busy with crying myself.