One of the starriest seasons in recent Broadway history just got starrier: James Franco has signed on to make his Broadway debut as the intelligent but uneducated George Milton in the stage version of the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men.” Rumored to be joining him as Lennie, his mentally-challenged friend and co-worker in Depression-era America, is Chris O’Dowd, an Irish actor and comedian best known as Kristen Wiig’s romantic interest in the movie “Bridesmaids” and a recurrent role on TV’s “Girls.” Steinbeck’s play, written as was the novella in 1937, has been revived once before, in 1974, with James Earl Jones as Lennie and Kevin Conway as George. Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony for “August: Osage County,” will be directing this revival, due to open in spring. That is, if the theater glut does not waylay the best laid plans of mice and men.
Steinbeck’s title was inspired by an elegiac Robert Burns poem that paid tribute to the fatalism of the human condition. George and Lennie are a pair of migrant workers who dream of one day tending to their own farm in Central California. Lennie, a gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength, is especially drawn to touching and petting soft objects, such as the fur of rabbits and puppies. It is a central trait that will lead to tragedy, despite George’s best efforts to protect his slow-witted friend. Steinbeck’s work has long been considered an American literary classic, consistent with the Nobel-prize-winning author’s astringent but sympathetic portraits of so-called losers looking for dignity, self-respect, and their place in the sun. While the original production in 1937 received a respectably long run, the 1974 revival flopped. This time around, the Oscar-nominated Franco’s star power will be tested in a highly competitive season featuring a roster of male marquee names, which includes Daniel Craig, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Zachary Braff, Zachary Quinto, Orlando Bloom, Denzel Washington, and Ethan Hawke.
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