I’m slouched down in seat K 17 at the Longacre Theatre in Manhattan, valiantly fighting off sleep deprivation (I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m.), when “Of Mice and Men” does something altogether ghastly. It ends the usual way.
And I’m like, REALLY, MR. STEINBECK? Are you SERIOUS about this? Did you have to do this AGAIN? I suffer from this same inflamed well-up of outrage every time I submit myself to “Tosca” (I hate your guts, Puccini!) and “West Side Story” (Bernstein and Shakespeare can both go to hell!) and “Les Misérables” (Victor Hugo sucks silver candlesticks!), and I know it’s irrational, but since when is there anything rational about theater-going? Or book-reading? Or movie-watching? Or, for that matter, sitting around a cave with our hunter-gatherer buddies, listening to the hairy old storyteller with the dirty fingernails and the creepy face-tat spin that long, tragic yarn about mastodons — the one that ends with the entire tribe getting trampled and gored? I don’t know about you, but every single time I hear that one, I’m always secretingly hoping it’ll end some other way. (Does the brave young spearthrower HAVE to get eviscerated?)
But we do this. We submit ourselves to fictional tragedy on a regular basis. I’m not sure why. It’s not like we suffer from any particular dearth of it in our real lives. These aren’t wish-fulfillment fantasies: “Oh, I’ll never be impaled by a mastodon tusk in real life! So now’s my chance!” Or maybe they are; maybe, by participating in regular doses of trauma-by-literary-proxy, we’re witnessing the worst of life from the safety of our cushy velvet seats.
The one I’ve been sitting in is over-priced: I bought the tickets from an online resale joint as a belated 18th-birthday present for my daughter Jeanne, who is a devoted if self-aware (and therefore somewhat ironic) James Franco fan. Franco plays George — one of the itinerant ranch workers who act out the depressingly depressing Steinbeckian vision that is “Mice” — and he’s good. The other main character, the one whose behavior proves so instrumental to all that depressingly depressing depression, is the large, limited Lennie, played by the normally Irish and gangly Chris O’Dowd. He’s also normally hilarious. Here he is not. Here he is a figure of terrible power and heartbreaking powerlessness, and I wouldn’t call him gangly, either. Why, he isn’t even Irish.
He is, however, amazing. So amazing that my first thought at the play’s conclusion, right after NO NO NO NOT AGAIN and THAT JERK STEINBECK MUST BE KIDDING is that someone ought to hand O’Dowd a Tony. Immediately. At curtain call. Just run right up to him, shove it into his fists and then back off, allowing a mass of screaming admirers to fall upon him with little glad cries. “Thank you for depressing the hell out of us so beautifully!” they should yell. “Thank you for bringing this doomed character to life, just so we could watch and be reminded, once again, of the hopeless and aimless misery of human existence and the heartless cruelty of Steinbeck!!”
Sadly, that doesn’t happen.
Afterward, my daughter and I join the large and expanding horde of Franco-worshippers at the stage door, most of them much less ironic than she is. We wait and wait and wait, Jeanne hoping for a selfie with him in the background, me hoping for a picture of Jeanne with him in the background. While we wait, O’Dowd comes out and works the horde, signing autographs and shaking hands. I can’t hear anything from my spot across the street, so I can’t say for sure whether anyone is thanking him for crushing their spirits.
An inquisitive Franco nudnik pipes up behind me.
NUDNIK: Who’s he?!
ME: It’s Chris O’Dowd.
NUDNIK: But who is he?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. He’s in the play. He’s fantastic.
NUDNIK: But, like, who is he?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. Irish guy.
NUDNIK: And he’s. . . who?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. He’s in “Of Mice and Men.” He was in “Bridesmaids”. . . ?
NUDNIK: But he’s, umm, who?
ME: Chris O’Dowd. Normally he’s funny. In “Of Mice and Men” he isn’t. But he’s terrific, just great.
NUDNIK: Who is he?
ME: Shut the HELL UP, Franco Nudnik! I hate you almost as much as I hate Steinbeck!
I don’t say that last part. But I kind of wish I had.
O’Dowd moves around the crowd and then heads down the street, away from us, so I don’t get a chance to thank him for making me miserable.