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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That extra Jim in the cast is Jim Parrack, a tall drink of water from Allen, TX, who towers over everybody and plays the most level-headed, even-handed of the bunkhouse brigade. "Being a good man," he discovered, "has a lot more to do with what you do than how you are." His Slim is as the straightest-shooter of the lot.
True to form, he doesn't take his Broadway bow lightly. "I feel very honored," he insisted. "Honest to God, I do. I didn't realize what an honor it would be 'til I did it."
Another newbie among the hired hands — James McMenamin — echoed the same sentimental sentiments. "It feels amazing. I've been acting professionally for 14 years, and to finally get here really feels like an honor. There are a million kids out there who want to do this, and to get the opportunity is a very, very special thing.
"I'm a huge Steinbeck fan," McMenamin continued. "I think he may be the greatest American writer who ever lived, and it's really just a privilege to be a part of this play. It's a phenomenal thing to be a part of. I think it's a beautiful production." Joel Marsh Garland, who played the ranch hand who put the dog down, said he was not packing heat at the Plaza party. "I have a small Swiss Army knife in my pocket," he allowed, "but I don't pack anything dangerous. There's no 1930s weaponry." Of course, in real life, he's an animal lover. "I have a cat. We used to own a dog, but it's a small apartment now so I don't think it's humane to own a dog with no space."
The hair-trigger troublemaker of the group is The Boss' pint-sized bully of a son, Curley, who's seriously out of sorts because he can't keep his new bride in her own backyard and not in the bunkhouse. He's easy to hate, and Alex Morf spares us nothing. "I've known people like him before, and I understand what it's like to be uncomfortable, and I think Curley's uncomfortable. It always comes out as rage."
As the lone female on the premises — a lonely one at that, let the record show, and conspicuously unloved — Leighton Meester vamps around the stage with the open heart of a wannabe adulteress. Her conversation with Lennie in the barn is a case of two ships passing unnoticed in the night, both spilling their dreams out and neither noticing. "That scene really took time," Meester recalled. "I think eye contact was what was important the first few weeks of rehearsal, just walking in with each other and understanding why one moment leads to the next. Once we were able to disconnect — the eye contact and unlock that — it just flowed, and it made sense."
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The audience bought it. O'Dowd said he could feel the story closing in on them, just from their reactions. "There's a great narrative in it, but that moment with the girl in the barn, I can feel them sit back in their seats and go 'Aww! Now, what'll happen?'"
Big screen and small, Franco has amassed 95 credits — and as a James-of-all-trades, too: Actor, director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor and such things as art department, sound department, soundtrack, archive footage, self and thanks. His brand-new title of Broadway actor sat well with him, indeed. "I love it," Franco beamed blissfully. "I do. I'm telling Anna to find us another one to do."
He admitted he thought about arriving on Broadway as a Tennessee Williams character. First, he considered stepping into the Chicago production of Sweet Bird of Youth, playing Chance Wayne to Diane Ladd's Princess Kosmonopolis; then, he was mulling a role in the recent The Glass Menagerie. "They'd have both been great projects to do," he said, "but I think this is the one that was meant to be. I'm happy about it."
What is surprising — and brave — about Franco's performance is the hard edge he gives George, indicative of how impatient and exasperated his years of caretaking have made him. "That has a lot to do with Shapiro's direction," he said, passing the credit or blame along to the proper person. "If I'd gone with my own direction, I'd have probably played it a little nicer, but she really wanted to emphasize the danger of Lennie — that he has gotten us into trouble, that I'm the one in the relationship who has to kinda look out for him. He IS dangerous, and the way to deliver that is through my level of frustration and understanding of what he's capable of." But, in the play's closing moments, he rises humanely to his final and ultimate act of friendship. "A lot of it has to do with the writing," he admitted, again giving credit where credit is due. "You can see it's so well constructed because you've heard the story twice before — he keeps telling Lennie what their dream is going to be — and now you hear it for the third time. Each time you hear the story it has a different kind of resonance, and this particular time it's the goodbye version of the story."
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"Saturday Night Live" writer Colin Jost, who has just started anchoring "Weekend Update" (filling the Seth Meyers-shaped cavern), came with friend-of-the-court status. "I'm here because James is a friend and frequent host of 'SNL.'" Another Franco pal was Suttirat Anne Larlarb, costume designer for such Danny Boyle movies as the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire" and Franco's Oscar-nominated "127 Hours."
A gaggle of "Gossip Girl" friends showed up to support Meester — among them, Amanda Setton ("Penelope Shafai") and Zuzanna Szadkowski ("Dorota Kishlovsky") — as did Minka Kelly, her roommate in "The Roommate" of 2011.
James Earl Jones, a memorable Lennie to Kevin Conway's George in Broadway's last Of Mice and Men 40 years ago, arrived with his wife and ex-Desdemona, Cecilia Hart. Joe Morton, who in 40 years has gone from a Tony-nominated Raisin to television's "Scandal," played Crooks in the Gary Sinise-John Malkovich 1992 "Of Mice and Men" movie. (And, no, he hasn't caught Denzel Washington in the current unmusical Raisin.)
A Sweet Charity Tony winner before he discovered the horrors of television ("True Blood," "American Horror Story"), Denis O'Hare filmed his adaptation of An Iliad at New York Theatre Workshop, and it will air on PBS this fall. May 12, he can be found in the longtime-in-coming TV movie of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. Keith Nobbs' life after Bronx Bombers is focused on a TNT pilot that could become the new mother ship for NY actors like "Law and Order." Written, produced and directed by its star Ed Burns, "Public Morals" is about "a division of NYPD that basically dealt with gambling, prostitution, homosexuality, various aspects of public morality. They were kind of the gatekeepers of public morals, but, of course, all the cops in the division were completely and totally corrupt," he said, pointing the way to episodic conflict. Michael Rapaport and Ruben Santiago-Hudson are down for it.
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Also present: Katie Couric; Motown's co-choreographer (Warren Adams) and Berry Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon), who are debuting as Broadway producer with this — and not a song in it; Terry Kinney; director Paul Haggis, the only person to write two consecutive Oscar-winning Best Pictures (2004's "Million Dollar Baby" and 2005's "Crash"); Joey Slotnick from the last "Secret Life of Walter Mitty"; Danai Gurira, the Zimbabwean-American actress among "The Walking Dead"; Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman, currently represented with (you should pardon the expression) Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, premiering April 21 at Playwrights Horizons; writer-director Stephen Belber, whose "Match" will be unreeled and toasted April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival (it stars Patrick Stewart in Frank Langella's Tony-nominated role of an eccentric, and possibly paternal, ballet instructor); Irish playwright Roisin Donnelly, finishing up a fact-based opus about an Irish madhouse of the 1940s called Birds Nest Soup, and Valisia LeKae, the Tony-nominated Diana Ross in Motown, who left the show in December to be treated after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
First-nighters are faced with the delirious prospect of a second Plaza Hotel after-party in a row with the April 17 opening of Act One. It's about Moss Hart learning to write plays with the man who directed Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford in the original 1937 Broadway production of Of Mice and Men — George S. Kaufman. The New York Drama Critics gave it their Best Play award — over Thornton Wilder's Our Town and Clifford Odets' Golden Boy. How do you like them rabbits, George?