NEW YORK — The migrant-worker tragedy “Of Mice and Men” may be compulsory reading in freshman English, but should it feel like homework for Broadway audiences, too? A revival of the play based on John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, featuring most notably a listless central performance by James Franco, opened Wednesday night at the Longacre Theatre, in a production that gives new meaning to the term “dry run.”
Director Anna D. Shapiro, who provided sterling guidance on Broadway for Stephen Adly Guirgis’s scathingly funny “The Mother—— With the Hat,” here tries to infuse classical heft into Steinbeck’s Darwinian story of broke farmhands eking out a life in Depression-era California. She places Franco and his co-star, the Irish film actor Chris O’Dowd, in designer Todd Rosenthal’s landscape of gorgeous sunsets and towering dormitories of rusting steel–and never elicits from them or most of the rest of the cast a portrayal of any more dimension. That would include the misapplied exertions of Leighton Meester, of “Gossip Girl” fame, as the bored, sexually frustrated wife of a ranch owner’s spoiled son.
Franco is George and O’Dowd is Lennie in Steinbeck’s famous pairing of a magnetic wanderer and his hulking, brain-injured friend. Hard economic times breed cruel treatment and a world of hurt for the simple-minded Lennie, who hurts the world right back: Unaware of his own brute strength, he crushes pets and people in his all-too-powerful embraces. In rather stodgy fashion, Steinbeck surveys the callousness and bigotry that corrode human relations in this mean, unforgiving environment. We’re meant to see in George, and his tough-love tendernesses toward Lennie, the forces of redemption at work.
Except we don’t see much of anything in Franco’s inexpressive countenance. Poised handsomely in work clothes, he registers changes in his features barely perceptibly, as if he is waiting during the 15th take for the camera to pick up the facial nuances. While he’s vocally okay (from the front of the orchestra, anyway), he’s far too impassive. There are more noteworthy shifts in the scenery than there are in this George’s moods.
O’Dowd is called on here to convey intellectual slowness in that big, conventionally physical way, with slurred speech and a slightly unfocused gaze. It’s a better than serviceable performance under the circumstances; he’s doubtless required to fill some of the emotional vacuum left by his co-star. Of the supporting actors, Jim Parrack offers up the most compelling performance, as the only farmhand, Slim, who grasps Lennie’s struggle and reaches out to help. Otherwise, the cast–and the forecast—looks parched.
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Sets, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Suttirat Larlarb; lighting, Japhy Weideman. With Jim Norton, Ron Cephas Jones. Tickets, $37-$270. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.