“Relayed live” is fast becoming the norm for ways to see a top show, given how impossible it can be to get tickets for the top shows – and with megastars James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, not to mention the excellent Jim Norton (whom I’ve praised recently for performances in Stan and Hamlet) appearing in an adaptation of Steinbeck‘s classic novella Of Mice And Men, tickets have been flying from the box office. Ah, but in this case it’s not relayed live, but recorded on Broadway – not that that is a bad thing.
As a simplified adaptation of a novella with a slight storyline, OMAM is reduced to its basic components, more so than any of the three film versions. It gives its principals time and space to develop their characters; truth be told, badly handled they could easily have become cardboard cutouts and stereotypes, but with sets redolent of rural America in hard times, you can easily believe these men scrape a living and live off their dreams.
You could cut the atmosphere with a blunt knife, particularly the strained relationship between the hired hands, their supervisor and his absentee wife (Leighton Meester, Ron Cephas Jones, Alex Morf, Joel Marsh Garland, James McMenamin, Jim Ortlieb and Jim Parrack.) Anna D Shapiro‘s direction and Japhy Wenideman’s design create an uneasy, at times almost menacing backdrop against which these sturdy characters can interact.
In a parallel universe this could easily be an American agricultural version of Pinter‘s The Caretaker, so recognisable are the characters and the territorial conflicts and alliances between them to identify who will gasp air and survive the hard times. Like Aston in the Caretaker, all they truly have is their dreams and the strangely symbiotic relationships with strange bedfellows, people who are thrown together at times of need.
In this case, Lennie Small is a big man but a simpleton, drawn to George Milton as a dog to its owner. Wikipedia descriptions of these characters as follows, with the remainder at the bottom of the page:
- George Milton: A quick-witted man who is Lennie’s guardian and best friend. His friendship with Lennie helps sustain his dream of a better future. He was bound in teasing Lennie since he was young.
- Lennie Small: A mentally disabled, but physically strong man who travels with George and is his constant companion. He dreams of “living off the fatta’ the lan'” and being able to tend to rabbits. His love for soft things conspires against him, mostly because he does not know his own strength, and eventually becomes his undoing.
The dream is persuasive – even drawing one-handed handyman Candy into it. It’s is a utopian myth, one all men can feed from. Indeed, the essential conflict is that George knows the dream is just a dream, and that Lennie’s tendency to do “bad things” unintentionally will be the cause of their downfall – until the fateful day when he will have to cut Lennie adrift.
In that sense OMAM is constructed with the dynamics of a Greek tragedy – much foreshadowing and an inevitably awful ending hanging over the drama. Better George be the one to kill the fearful, feeble Lennie before the mob tears him limb from limb.
The victims of Lennie’s inability to control his sudden rages, or indeed his colossal strength, can also be foretold: the puppy with whom he forms a bond, and later Curly’s wife, about whom the boss’s son is deeply jealous. She is one of two outsiders in the male company, the other being Crooks, who, being black, is consigned to the barn. This is not a world where justice and equality reign, but, each being mavericks in their own way, Lennie is drawn to both Crooks and Curly’s wife – though Crooks survives a moment of rage. Perhaps a subconscious fear that a man may take revenge on him?
Franco and O’Dowd are both impressive performers, capable of building their characters and staying in character with every move, gesture and expression, bringing out the warmth and humour without losing sight of the tragic scenario in which all are imprisoned. While Franco’s George is phlegmatic but cool, if anything it is O’Dowd’s Lennie that takes the honours, a whimpering child of a man.
This is beautifully performed, persuasive, taut drama, stripped of all superfluous subplots. See it while you can – even if that means a flight to NYC and begging for returned tickets!
However, my companion’s view was subtly different:
Good but not enough about the situation the characters are in and that their dream is more than everyman’s mythical ideal, it is something they had and lost and it is quite particular to the time.
There you have it – room for all opinions here!
- Candy: An aging ranch handyman, Candy lost his hand in an accident and worries about his future on the ranch. Fearing that his age is making him useless, he seizes on George’s description of the farm he and Lennie will have, offering his life’s savings if he can join George and Lennie in owning the land. The fate of Candy’s ancient dog, which Carlson shoots in the back of the head in an alleged act of mercy, foreshadows the manner of Lennie’s death.
- Slim: A “jerkline skinner,” the main driver of a mule team and the “prince of the ranch”. Slim is greatly respected by many of the characters and is the only character whom Curley treats with respect. His insight, intuition, kindness and natural authority draw the other ranch hands automatically towards him, and he is significantly the only character to fully understand the bond between George and Lennie.
- Curley: The Boss’ son, a young, pugnacious character, once a semi-professional boxer. He is described by others, with some irony, as “handy”, partly because he likes to keep a glove filled with vaseline on his left hand, and partly because of Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing. He is very jealous and protective of his wife and immediately develops a dislike toward Lennie. At one point, Curley loses his temper after he sees Lennie appear to laugh at him, and ends up with his hand horribly damaged after Lennie fights back against him.
- Curley’s wife: A young, pretty woman, who is mistrusted by her husband. The other characters refer to her only as “Curley’s wife”. This lack of personal definition underscores this character’s purpose in the story: Steinbeck explained that she is “not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil – and a danger to Lennie.” Curley’s wife’s preoccupation with her own beauty eventually helps precipitate her death: She allows Lennie to stroke her hair as an apparently harmless indulgence, only for her to upset Lennie when she yells at him to stop him ‘mussing it’. Lennie tries to stop her yelling and eventually, and accidentally, kills her by recklessly breaking her neck. The author does not even give her a name. She is the only female in the ranch.
- Crooks: Crooks, the black stable-hand, gets his name from his crooked back. Proud, bitter, and cynical, he is isolated from the other men because of the color of his skin. Despite himself, Crooks becomes fond of Lennie, and though he claims to have seen countless men following empty dreams of buying their own land, he asks Lennie if he can go with them and hoe in the garden.The author does not give him a proper name. He has been nicknamed.