Of all the alter egos you can picture James Franco inhabiting, is “California farmhand” one of them? Me neither. How about Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) as a hard-luck Irishman? Maybe slightly less of a stretch?
This spring, two revivals — John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan — place major film stars on Broadway stages. The first features Franco and Chris O’Dowd, the second Radcliffe. Both raise questions about the rationale behind revivals: Do we bring back old plays because we love them or because they allow celebrities to dabble with stagecraft?
Steinbeck’s classic saga, which he adapted from his 1937 novel, follows itinerant farmhands around Depression-era California. Smart, tough George (Franco) travels with, and fiercely protects, the physically strong but emotionally childlike Lennie (O’Dowd). The men dream of their own farm, but perpetually risk unemployment because Lennie can’t keep his big, well-meaning hands to himself.
The new Broadway production has plenty of things to recommend it. There’s Anna D. Shapiro’s crisp direction, a beautifully craggy set by Todd Rosenthal, and a delightfully self-possessed dog who makes an important cameo.
But the film stars’ work is slicker and less engaging. Franco’s performance is blustery and thin, and Leighton Meester (Gossip Girl debutante extraordinaire) is similarly slight playing the ranch owner’s son’s lonely, bored wife. O’Dowd is more convincing as the sweet, confused Lennie.
This unevenness points to other confusions in the piece. Of Mice and Men fits easily into dramatic form, but something is lost in translation. The fable’s symbolic weight is heavier-handed, and the ending feels too inevitable. (As if we didn’t get it, a giant mechanical claw hovers over Lennie’s head at the moment the plot pivots toward doom.) Steinbeck’s observations on poverty, which could have been apt in this age of widening economic inequality, are buried beneath the creaking sense of impending disaster.
If Of Mice and Men evokes classic Americana, The Cripple of Inishmaan tries to provide a touch of the Irish. First produced in 1996, McDonagh’s play follows young “Cripple” Billy (Radcliffe) as he struggles with prejudice, poverty, and rumors that his parents drowned themselves to escape him. One day, the town gossipmonger, Johnnypateenmike (Pat Shortt), brings big news: A filmmaker has landed in nearby Inishmore to cast a new movie (this part is based on real events from 1934). Soon, Inishmaan’s youth, including the desperate Billy, are piling into a rowboat in hopes of escaping down-and-out island life.
Inishmaan is problematic for reasons unrelated to Radcliffe’s earnest, if exaggerated, performance. McDonagh seems to be writing a farce; the play includes endless exits and entrances and an almost unbearable amount of banter. But it’s unclear what’s funny about Inishmaan. The objects of humor seem to be poverty and Irishness, which would be forgivable if I’d laughed. The set, all rounded rock walls and grimy windows, feels like a Flintstones take on rustic despair, and the characters are types, neither sympathetic nor genuinely amusing. And for all the play’s quirky historical setting, McDonagh seems most interested in drama of the most conventional kind: boy-meets-girl sentimentalism, buried family secrets coming to light.
Revivals can be revelatory, but that takes more than moonlighting movie stars. Smaller names, and bigger plays, might have done the trick.