Surely James Franco has a lavish walk-in closet to store his many hats. A hyperactive, red-hot celebrity mostly known for his film and television roles, he is also a cutting-edge director, screenwriter, producer, book author, poet, grad student, teacher, visual artist, Academy Award co-host, sex symbol, and shameless selfie model. Just last week, his show of photographs opened at the prestigious Pace Gallery in West Chelsea, plus he had a surprise cameo on “SNL.”
In recent years, critics have accused the 35-year-old overachiever of spreading himself too thin, often sacrificing quality for quantity.
So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I entered the Longacre Theatre where John Steinbeck’s 1937 drama based on his iconic novella “Of Mice and Men” is being revived after a 40-year absence. Franco plays George, the bossy itinerant farmhand teamed with the sweet, slow-witted Lennie, portrayed by Chris O’Dowd (best known for the hit film comedy “Bridesmaids”).
This marks the Broadway debut for both leads and much of the supporting cast. In fact, Franco’s Playbill bio lists no theater credits whatsoever (though the back cover features a debonair Franco in a Gucci men’s fragrance ad).
For the most part, the superbly muscular and resonant production is a success. After a shaky first scene, which establishes the symbiotic bond between the two lonely drifters camping out in the Salinas Valley of California before their next ranch gig, Franco hits his stride and delivers a solid, sensitive performance.
Even a Broadway veteran would find this drama demanding — it’s a lean character-driven, Depression-era period piece with heavy cowboy-esque accents and dialogue that requires uncommon skill and dexterity.
Franco is at his best in the lighter moments, like when he tells the emphatic, childlike Lennie the story about getting their own little farm on a couple of acres, with a cow and some pigs and plenty of rabbits, where they can “live off the fat of the land,” answering to nobody.
Lennie knows the story by heart, but insists George tell it over and over. “It ain’t the same if I tell it,” Lennie says.
Lead producer David Binder, who is having a boffo season with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” opening April 22, actually handpicked Franco for the role. Franco has a track record of interpreting American classics — he directed and starred in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” for example — and has said in interviews he has an affinity for the material, growing up in Palo Alto not far from where the action takes place. He also identifies with the fiercely independent characters.
As the gentle giant Lennie, O’Dowd has the tougher role, mastering the tics and mannerisms of a mentally impaired person. Yet he is quite convincing, articulating Lenny’s child-like wonder in petting fragile, furry creatures and his violent temper tantrums with fluidity.
Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”), another Broadway neophyte, is spot-on as the wife of the ranch owner’s son, Curley (she’s not given a name). The sole female character in the 10-person drama, she’s a flirty, bored “tart” who upsets the men-only balance of the bunkhouse. With just the right mix of pushiness and vulnerability, Meester elicits our sympathy for Curley’s wife being stuck with a jealous husband (an excellent Alex Morf) in the middle of nowhere.
This “Of Mice and Men” owes much of its quiet intensity to director Anna D. Shapiro, who won the best director Tony for “August: Osage County.” It’s a pure, gimmick-free production that respects the text and time period, aided by Todd Rosenthal’s detailed set of a grimy, dilapidated bunkhouse. And if you’re hoping to see Franco shirtless, you’ll need to look elsewhere (try Instagram).
Even though most of us know the inevitable, doubly tragic climax from reading the novella in high school, it still lands brutally hard, like a sucker punch to the gut.
Refreshingly, Shapiro adds a soft touch to a normally testosterone-drenched story, bringing out the tender side of George and Lennie’s partnership. While there is no trace of the homoerotic, there is a strong homocentric streak. The idea of two guys who “string along together” is almost unheard of and raises eyebrows among the ranch hands.
The rootless duo’s dream of shucking convention and going off to create a life together — no woman is mentioned in this fantasy — where they can take care of each other is not unlike LGBT folk who have been forging their own nontraditional families for decades.
“I ain’t got no people,” George explains. “Him and me… got kinda used to each other after a little while.”
OF MICE AND MEN | Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. | Through Jul. 27: Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $35-$147 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 35 min., with intermission