At a press conference in March, Chris O'Dowd's television and film background shone through when he referenced his time “on set” while rehearsing for his Broadway debut in “Of Mice and Men.” The show's director, Anna Shapiro, made it clear that theater requires a different vocabulary.
“I've been teaching them that here, we're not on set,' we're on the set,' and then when they're literally on the stage, they're on the stage,'” Shapiro explained.
“But he's called the set designer!” O'Dowd cried in mock protest.
“Yes, I understand. Listen, I'm not saying it's right. I just don't want you guys to embarrass yourselves in front of your theater friends,” Shapiro said.
This kind of lively dialogue seems to define the relationship between the 2014 cast of John Steinbeck's acclaimed novella-turned-play, which stars Broadway newcomers James Franco, SoA '10, Leighton Meester, and O'Dowd alongside an ensemble of theater veterans.
“Of Mice and Men” was originally staged at the Music Box Theatre in 1937 and has been produced twice on Broadway. Its last major appearance in New York City was off-Broadway in 1987, and Shapiro has dreamed of revisiting the material for a while. She and Franco were working on an adaptation three years ago, but it fell apart. Now, finally, their efforts and desires are culminating in a limited engagement at the Longacre Theatre this spring.
“I've had a long-standing interest in it, and I feel there are themes that are important to me and have to do with, you know, the lie of the American dream and the effect of that lie on the American male. And I think that's a pretty timeless topic and something that is always pretty alive in our culture. And so for me, right now, that's kind of my way into the play,” Shapiro said in an interview with Spectator.
Though “Of Mice and Men” is part of Steinbeck's migrant-worker trilogy, the novella is distinct because the author wrote it with the stage in mind—his letters reveal that he looked at the book as an experiment in literary genres. Perhaps because of Steinbeck's ultimate goal of transforming the novella into a play, “Of Mice and Men” includes less imagery and fewer complicated plotlines than in most of his texts and instead contours complex, intricate characters that invite reflection.
“It's these human individuals mixed up in a larger system, and you see kind of how the effects of that system ruin certain kinds of humanity or human connections,” Franco said at the press conference.
“I'm about relationships. That's what I'm drawn to in a piece. And this is a piece that I think is really centered on a relationship,” he added.
Because the script is so rich, the actors noted how much they've enjoyed delving into its nuances during rehearsals.
“Interestingly, it [rehearsal] only really works when the writing's so great that it can take this many days of analysis,” O'Dowd said. “In a lot of films that I've done, if we were to do a monthlong rehearsal process, the whole thing would fall apart pretty quickly. But when the writing's this good, it lends itself to analysis and interpretation.”
Given the recent economic recession in the United States, a narrative about two men who are struggling to survive is certainly relevant to a 21st century audience. However, Shapiro is more fascinated by Steinbeck's decision to write about a past decade based on his time as a migrant worker, and she wants to explore the meaning of the underlying tensions that emerged from the socioeconomic conditions of the 1920s.
“For me, the timeliness politically of the play has to do with our country's willful blindness to our eventual obsolescence,” she said. “He doesn't move the time, does he? He doesn't say, 10 years earlier.' So he's essentially writing about a ghosted America. These people are already gone.”
Franco portrays George, and O'Dowd is his Lennie. As he towers over Franco and smiles amiably, O'Dowd seems typecast for his role, even if his wit offstage far exceeds that of his character. Additionally, everyone's favorite Queen B, Meester, is trying on a new look as Curley's wife. Forget Blair Waldorf and her Louboutin pumps—Meester is now in rural California, not the modern concrete jungle of New York City. Far from Blair's glamorous lifestyle in her townhouse with Chuck Bass, Curley's wife lives in relative anonymity on a farm and dreams of escaping the drudgery of her mundane world.
For Meester, who first read the novella in seventh grade, the play has become a personal exercise, and rehearsals have allowed her to dive into its subtext.
“We talk about symbolism and the meaning behind things and the different characters, but as an adult, you know, you've had life experiences. And I've seen things firsthand now, so it just has taken on a different meaning. And I think that those topics are really hit on in the play,” Meester said.
Since the three leads are new to the Great White Way, they rely on Shapiro for guidance and advice. “I feel like we have the best director around, and I'm an actor who depends on directors. So I feel like we have all the cards in our hands,” Franco said.
And for a Tony Award-winning director with a foundation in theater, Shapiro has been more than welcoming to a cast that features television and film actors.
“Who wouldn't want to do a play? Can you blame 'em?” she said. “If they love them [plays] enough to want to do them, ... they're a member of my family.”
After a long rehearsal schedule, O'Dowd, Franco, and Meester are looking forward to opening night on April 16. Hopefully, it won't be an evening that proves “the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry,” a quote from the Robert Burns poem from which the book takes its title.
“It's like opening night is the first time we all sleep together, and this whole process is the courting,” O'Dowd said as he described the uncommonly arduous affair of cultivating a show for the theater.
Though O'Dowd, Franco, and Meester weren't acquainted with Broadway before this season, Shapiro holds them in high esteem and expects their performances to resonate with the audience.
“They're wonderful. They're committed to learning. They're curious. They're humble. They're hardworking. They're deeply, deeply devoted. And you know, some people are famous for a reason,” she said.