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Review: 'Of Mice and Men' finds James Franco in CliffsNotes mode

NEW YORK — Why is James Franco, the world's most famous perpetual student, making his Broadway debut in a revival of that panting war horse "Of Mice and Men," a favorite of high school English teachers and Turner Classic Movies addicts?

It's a strange choice for this multi-hyphenated star, who has conducted his career like a postmodern experiment designed to reveal — who knows? — the pointless distinction between high and low culture or maybe the susceptibility of the arts and academia to the whorish charms of celebrity.

What his work here ultimately exposes, however, are the limits of dilettantism. In playing George opposite Chris O'Dowd's lumbering, mentally challenged, bunny obsessed Lennie in Anna D. Shapiro's gleaming yet hollow production, Franco delivers a performance that is the equivalent of a term paper on John Steinbeck's 1937 novella written the night before it was due with help from a double-shot of energy drink.

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He's obviously an actor of wide-ranging intelligence, but his intellectualism doesn't serve him here. His acting — unspontaneous, utterly devoid of reflexes and lacking the gremlin smirk of his best film work — happens strictly from the neck up. Rather than inhabiting moments and making connections with his fellow performers, he plays a series of ideas, turning up the dial on impatience, anger and loneliness when required but remaining more or less disembodied from his circumstances.

His mind may have arrived at JFK, but his body is still stuck at LAX. Apparently he's teaching a class in L.A. on his day off while no doubt finding time to write screenplays and short stories, direct a movie and possibly even complete one of his sundry graduate degrees. With such a schedule, it's no wonder he's saving his best acting these days for Instagram. At the Longacre Theatre, where "Of Mice and Men" has just opened, he's FaceTime-ing it in.

Teenage fans crowding outside the stage door, however, needn't fret: Franco is as handsome as his selfies. Indeed, he's been styled to look like a California migrant ranch worker as a Gap advertising campaign might imagine him. His facial hair has been trimmed to split the difference between Salinas Valley laborer and Brooklyn hipster. This is a George who knows the difference between denim and chambray.

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Realistic acting of the kind demanded by "Of Mice and Men" doesn't allow for short cuts. There's a difference between behaving and signaling behavior, and onstage, where there's nowhere to hide, it's glaring. When Franco is overcome with strong emotion at a climactic juncture in the play, he does what any actor more comfortable with cliché than with actual feeling does: he retches.

Shapiro, who won a Tony for her staging of "August: Osage County," is a Chicago-based director who could have fielded a more unified cast through her fruitful affiliation with Steppenwolf Theatre. (Shapiro directed Bruce Norris' "A Parallelogram" last summer at the Mark Taper Forum.) This Broadway ensemble, which includes Leighton Meester of "Gossip Girl" fame as the flirtatious wife of the boss' fiery tempered son and Tony winner Jim Norton as the aging worker whose old, decrepit dog gets tear-jerkingly put down, is scattershot, to put it mildly.

The production begins at a riverbank that is treated by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal and lighting designer Japhy Weideman as a Beckettian landscape with a purple-hued California sky. The geography is more or less an abstraction, as deficient in local color as the actors portraying the inhabitants of this land.

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O'Dowd and Norton are able to disguise their native Irish cadences for a generalized American sound that's as placeless as the production as a whole. Meester, a boldly fluttering cosmetic butterfly, joins the party directly from some television no-man's-land.

Steinbeck's sensitivity to the primitive conditions of these agricultural workers, toiling for their daily bread while struggling to hold onto hope in a situation of economic despair, derives its power from its specificity. Reading the work through the prism of "Waiting for Godot" isn't wrongheaded. (The quarrelsome mutual dependence of alienated George and hapless Lennie foreshadows the feisty, burdensome, affectionate bond of Didi and Gogo.) But for the social realism of "Of Mice and Men" to hit, the period detail must be more convincingly evoked.

There are moments when this occurs in Shapiro's production. The scene in which Ron Cephas Jones' Crooks, the African American stable hand, befriends Lennie is at once tender, caustic and true in its portrait of two outcasts momentarily encountering fellow feeling.

Steinbeck's critique of capitalism's divide and conquer strategy is painfully timely. But "Of Mice and Men," which the author adapted himself for Broadway the same year his book was published, creaks with melodrama.

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The play's themes still sting, but the style is retrograde. Franco's distracted, anachronistic presence awkwardly magnifies the conventional nature of the drama. O'Dowd, making a worthier Broadway debut, submits himself more wholly to the task at hand. But the character of Lennie, with his child's mind trapped inside a giant's body, is a difficult role to credibly reinvent.

A few blocks away at the Lyceum Theatre, four talented actors with Hollywood cred — Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei — are putting their cachet behind Will Eno's "The Realistic Joneses." I have mixed feelings about the play, with its strained verbal eccentricities, but I can't help admiring these actors for lending their focused commitment to an American writer trying to break new ground.

This revival of "Of Mice and Men," I'm sorry to say, is just another quizzical episode of "The James Franco Show," that pop culture reality series growing vainer by the minute.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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