Dream-chasers in The Great Depression are a sorrowful lot, especially the ones who populate the books of John Steinbeck that were subsequently translated into plays. His 1937 self-adaptation of his 1936 "Of Mice and Men" resonates with heart-aching relevance in what director Anna D. Shaprio delivered April 16 to the Longacre. The lights of the last curtain call were fading to black when James Franco and Chris O'Dowd, who play the Mutt and Jeff of this grizzled American classic — George Milton and Lennie ("He's-anything-but") Small — realized something, or someone, was missing: Herr Directress! So Lennie leaped off the stage into the audience, scooped up Shaprio and put her in Franco's waiting arms on stage for a richly deserved bow.
The lady was verklempt, to say the least, but the beau geste was totally called for. It was her triumph. She made the story the real star and superbly served Steinbeck.
Apparently, David Bender and his armada of producers were pleased as well because all stops were pulled and the after-party was splashed handsomely over three floors of The Plaza Hotel. The cast-grilling was contained on the second floor.
In a cast of eight, six Broadway debuts were marked with this production. Just two of the three Jims aboard (four if you count Franco) have done the Main Stem before.
Jim Ortlieb arrived in Des McAnuff shows: The Farnsworth Invention and the most recent Guys and Dolls ("I was Arvide Abernathy, who played the piano and sang 'More I Cannot Wish You'"). Here, he's a hulking figure of authority known only as The Boss. "All the capitalists in the audience are very curious about The Boss — and justifiably so," he wryly noted. "They want to know what he does with his time off."
Jim Norton has done five Broadway shows, winning a Tony for The Seafarer and a Drama Desk nomination for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This time out, he's ideally cast as Candy, the ancient bindlestiff who has outlived his usefulness, with his old sheepdog intact — intact until the dog is finally put down for stinking up the bunkhouse.
Waiting for that gunshot to go off in the distance and then watching Norton crumble brokenheartedly into his bunk when it does is a piece of indestructible, stainless-steel theatre. True to the Hitchcockian rule of drama — you should never introduce a gun into a story unless you intend to use it — this one is used twice, beautifully.
Part of Candy dies with that gunshot, and, vulnerable, he falls for that pie-in-the-sky fantasy that George keeps spinning for Lennie about the ranch they'll have one day. "I love the novella, and I've known it for such a long time," Norton confessed. "I was 19 when I read it first — when I read all of Steinbeck — and I've always had an image of it in my head, so it's just wonderful all these years later to be asked to play it. Anna Shapiro is just a wonderful director, and she has done a great job here. It's a terrific ensemble. That's the important thing. It has been very much a team effort."
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