Magazine article New Criterion

Great Depressions

Magazine article New Criterion

Great Depressions

Article excerpt

What should we make of Of Mice and Men? It is easily the most attractive of John Steinbeck's major works, and, like the themes of Wagner's operas or the energetic conducting style of Leopold Stokowski, Steinbeck's bindlestiffs are known to millions of post-literate Americans through Bugs Bunny cartoons. I don't make that point facetiously; a work of art, or a literary character, has to touch the culture at a very deep level for popular parody to be possible. There is something about Steinbeck's odd couple, George Milton and Lennie Small, beyond the obvious pathos, that is still arresting for us. Perhaps it is because there are so few writers in our own time who have bothered to take the issue of friendship seriously. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, Jim and Huck, Lennie and George: Tales of philia for an empire of eros. Even the BBC'S reimagining of the Holmes-Watson friendship in the Benedict Cumberbatch series felt obliged to insert a number of gay gags, the not-entirely-unreasonable assumption being that in the twenty-first century two men as close as Holmes and Watson would be perceived as a sexual pairing.

There's a bit of that, but not too much, in the largely unadorned version of Of Mice and Men currendy being staged on Broadway under the direction of Anna Shapiro, with James Franco in the role of George and Chris O'Dowd as Lennie. There's some question about whether Curley's questioning of George early in the novella is intended to suggest he suspects them of being homosexuals, and Alex MorFs leering delivery of the line of stage sounds about right to my ear. Mr. Morf, yapping like a mean little dog, is about as detestable a Curley as one could hope for, an excellent communication of the character's sloppy braid of bravado, cowardice, and jealousy.

Mr. Morf's intense unlikeability may be the reason that the play's centerpiece act of violence--Lennie's crushing Curley's hand to a pulp after the little bully finally goads the big man into a fight--is so unsatisfying. Mr. O'Dowd's performance is otherwise marvelous; perhaps the problem is simply the technical challenge of staging convincing fights. This season, I've seen a dozen Shakespearean skirmishes and a Bruce Lee kung-fu extravaganza, and I still have a few Trojan wars fresh in my memory, with very few instances of well-staged combat among them. In David Henry Hwang's Rung Fu, the fight director Emmanuel Brown apparently solved the problem by delegating much of the work to Sonya Tayeh, who simply allowed the movement to evolve into dance. Classic Stage Company took roughly the same approach with the siege of Troy, rendering the violence as a series of callisthenic formalities. But Of Mice and Men takes place in a grounded, realistic world, especially in this restrained, well-edited presentation, so unostentatious that it does not so much have set design as carpentry: a few bunks, a few chairs. Lennie is a force of nature, and a terrifying one. It is not an accident that everything that catches his attention ends up dead or mangled; in that, he is rather like the God of the Old Testament. Lennie may be without malice, but a grizzly bear is without malice, too. But Mr. O'Dowd does not play the scene as a force of nature; rather, he looks a little like a robot being marched across the stage via remote control, as though he had been directed to show "out of control" and mistook it for being under the control of a third party, his gait uncertain, his face bewildered.

But that is one off moment in an otherwise lovely performance. Mr. O'Dowd, known on these shores mainly for his roles in the film Bridesmaids and in the television series Girls, takes on a very difficult task with some real skill. Without veering into Tropic Thunder territory, there is the question of exactly how mentally retarded to make Lennie, and that in an age in which the words "mentally retarded" are themselves under indictment. Lennie's mental disability is very specific: He can handle organized agricultural work but not the quotidian affairs of life. …

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