Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men" is really two plays.
One is a mechanical whodunit, as members of a murder jury analyze a case they feel the lawyers have not fully explained.
The other is a Frank Capra-like paean to the jury system.
It is not easy to blend the two, but director Scott Ellis has managed it beautifully, creating a powerful ensemble from his impressive cast. The characters do not have names, only numbers, but the actors have given them great individuality.
Rose's play was written for TV 50 years ago. It is very much a period piece in such matters as the blatant racism of one of the jurors and a bow to Freud toward the end. Wisely, Ellis has not tried to update anything.
If its premise - that one holdout juror can use "a reasonable doubt" to persuade the other 11 -seems far-fetched, the play is nevertheless skillfully written, and the points it makes seem logical and persuasive.
Boyd Gaines plays the holdout juror with a dignity and reserve that makes everything he says compelling. Similarly, Larry Bryggman has enormous grace as the one foreign-born juror.
Philip Bosco plays a somewhat confused juror, the source of whose befuddlement becomes clear at the very end of the play. His handling of this moment gives the evening a moving climax.
Two other elder statesmen of the theater - Tom Aldredge and James Rebhorn - bring wonderfully controlled passion to their roles. The angriest of the jurors is Peter Friedman, who remains at a low simmer most of the time, which sets off his final outburst superbly.
John Pankow is funny as a slob. Adam Trese has a splendid coolness as an advertising man. Michael Mastro does a sequence about a switchblade knife almost as if it were music.
Alan Moyer's understated set establishes the time frame perfectly, as do Michael Krass' costumes. Paul Palazzo's lighting adds nuance to the drama.
It is easy to see what is naive about Rose's play, which is perhaps a bit too "well-made" for contemporary tastes. Today, a play like this would be done as a docudrama. It would be more realistic, but it probably would lack the thing that made it worth reviving, its spirit of affirmation.
As soon as they start to file onto the stage, one behind the other in an irritable procession, you may find yourself grinning at the sheer familiarity of it all. Each of these guys is so clearly stamped as a vintage type that he might as well be wearing a sandwich board with a label that reads "Buttoned-down Businessman" or "The Wise Guy" or "Loud-Mouthed Lug."
As befits the title characters of a play called "Twelve Angry Men," these fellows are also clearly hot and bothered, their eyes anxious and their brows damp with sweat. But don't confuse the performances with the performers. The actors in this adaptation of Reginald Rose's popular television (and film) drama from the 1950fs, which has been translated to a Broadway stage for the first time, are having an awfully good time. So, it might be added, is much of the audience.
The Roundabout Theater Company's production of "Twelve Angry Men," which opened last night at the American Airlines Theater, suggests that sometimes the best way to present a fossil is just to polish it up and put it on display without disguise, annotation or apology. This tidy portrait of clashing social attitudes in a jury room definitely creaks with age. But somehow the creaks begin to sound like soothing music, a siren song from a period of American drama when personalities were drawn in clean lines, the moral was unmistakable and the elements of a plot clicked together like a jigsaw puzzle without a single missing piece.
Directed with brisk straightforwardness by Scott Ellis, this 90-minute, intermissionless show, built around the dissection of a murder, is for folks who would usually rather stay home with "Law & Order" or Agatha Christie than schlep to the theater. It is no coincidence that Rose, who died two years ago, was also the creator of the "The Defenders," the early 1960's television series and a granddaddy to "Law & Order" and its clones.
But even those who like their theater hip and cerebral might want to lower their eyebrows on this occasion. With an ensemble led by Philip Bosco (as Juror Three, the Angriest One of All) and Boyd Gaines (as Juror Eight, the Virtuous One), this production is a showcase for some of New York's finest character actors, all of whom manage to chew the scenery without smacking their lips.
No one breaks or reshapes the assembly-line mold of his character. That would spoil everything. But each infuses a now cliched type with an enjoyable vigor that suggests that even moss-smothered trees still have sap in them.
"Twelve Angry Men" was originally written for a live broadcast on "Studio One," a show that was part of what is now regarded as the fleeting golden age of television drama. Mr. Rose subsequently adapted his teleplay for the celebrated I957 film version, directed by a newcomer to film named Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda (as Juror Eight, the virtuous One, of course).
There have since been assorted stage versions, ranging from a British production directed by Harold Pinter in 1996 to all manner of school, church and community theater stagings, sometimes retitled "Twelve Angry People," "Twelve Angry Women" or "Twelve Angry Jurors" for the sake of political correctness.
The play's appeal to nonprofessionals makes sense. It is short; it requires one simple set; it has a dozen good speaking parts; and, perhaps most important, it combines the methodical suspense of an old-fashioned murder mystery with the healthy glow of a civics lessons. As the jurors debate the probable guilt of an inner-city adolescent accused of stabbing his father to death, prejudices and preconceptions are aired and exorcised.
The play's rhythms, which could almost be set to a metronome, follow a pattern of exposition, flare-up and cool-down, as Juror Eight tries to persuade his colleagues that there is indeed room for reasonable doubt. This allows both for painstaking, "Perry Mason”-style reconstructions of witness testimony (which involve props like switchblades and diagrams) and for impassioned, arialike speeches.
Some of these are a little winceable, especially those delivered by a little old European (and presumably Jewish) watchmaker, who defends the American way in the manner of a cuddly, courtly foreigner in a patriotic 1940's film. (That's Juror Eleven, played quite appealingly under the circumstances by Larry Bryggman.) And Juror Eight is often forced to assume the role of a patient seminar leader, guiding his wayward pupils to enlightenment. "It's very hard to keep personal prejudice out of a thing like this," he says. "And no matter where you run into it, prejudice obscures the truth."
Mr. Gaines, the eternally clean-cut actor who won a Tony for "Contact," is almost too well cast in a part that might be more interestingly played by someone with more rough edges. (Fonda, of course, had the advantage of bringing a whole iconic personal history to the role; when Juror Eight preached, that was Tom Joad, the voice of the people.)
Then again, to introduce subtleties of characterization into "Twelve Angry Men" would probably unsuitably smudge the play's crisp lines. Mr. Ellis, a long-time stalwart of the Roundabout, is not usually big on imagination, which in this case is just fine. This production plays steadfastly by the rules of its genre, from the slightly soiled jury-room realism of Allen Moyer's set to the characters' class-defining wardrobes (designed by Michael Krass).
Mr. Ellis, whose best previous work in recent years was the Roundabout revival of the similarly square musical "1776," is good at keeping large male ensembles in balance. This group brings to mind pleasures associated with the virtual stock companies of Hollywood directors like Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, who regularly used actors whose very faces came to signal what their characters would be.
Everyone in the cast does enjoyable work, swapping jabs in lively period dialogue and building to their big moments of explosion and/or revelation with a judicious use of tell-tale tics and mannerisms. Mark Blum (as Juror One, the Harried Foreman), Tom Aldredge (as Juror Nine, the Touching Old Gentleman) and Michael Mastro (as Juror Five, the Not-as-Goofy-as-He-Seems Guy) turn in particularly sharp studies in quick-take craftsmanship. And Peter Friedman (as Juror Ten, the Bigot) brings just the right weight and menace to a character that could easily be overdone.
But it's Mr. Bosco, an actor's actor of long standing ("Copenhagen," "Lend Me a Tenor" and a whole lot of Shaw), who has the most to work with, and you can bet that he runs with it. Juror Three is the One With a Secret. You can predict where the script will take him. But Mr. Bosco, his face uncannily turning a spectrum of reds and purples as his character's dudgeon rises, keeps you emotionally engaged though every predictable moment.
Indeed, when Juror Three finally collapses into sobs, you can hear echoing sniffles throughout the audience. The right actor, it seems, can draw blood from even the most artificial structure. Or is it partly because of the show's artificiality, and the ways it reinforces a patriotic trust in American goodness, that "Twelve Angry Men" still makes people mist up?
Heck, I'll admit that even as my mind sneered, I found tears in my eyes when the Little Old Watchmaker delivered his paean to the democratic spirit. There's nothing like a nostalgic glimmer of old-fashioned hope in hope-poor times to make a jaded theatergoer take out his handkerchief.
Making its first Broadway appearance a half-century after its original incarnation, the Roundabout's production of Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men" takes its cue as much from the taut 1954 teleplay, which clocked in at a brisk 50 minutes, as from any subsequent, expanded version for stage or screen. Director Scott Ellis drives the ensemble of sterling theater actors like a demanding jockey astride a trusted steed, and if he tends to gallop unduly through some character-establishing dialogue, his intermissionless staging brings a rousing urgency to this bristling drama that helps to hide the work's liberal didacticism.
First seen on CBS' "Studio One," directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone, the play was adapted by Rose using previously discarded material for Sidney Lumet's 1957 screen version with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. An inferior amateur stage version made the rounds for years, adapted by Sherman L. Sergel from Rose's teleplay. The playwright's more nuanced stage version was first produced in 1964 and revised in 1996 for a London production directed by Harold Pinter. That text also became a solid 1997 Showtime made-for-cabler, with William Friedkin directing a starry cast led by Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.
While the latter version contemporized the action, allowing for an ethnically mixed jury, Rose's play was and is very much rooted in a 1950s setting, placing a dozen combustible white men of different temperaments and social extractions around a table in a closed room to thrash out a difficult decision.
Ellis returns the action to an unair-conditioned jury room of a New York City courthouse on a sweltering day in late summer 1954. But the remoteness in time of its setting and the now jarringly uniform color and gender of its jurors does nothing to dim the ongoing relevance of the play's themes of judgment, prejudice and the right to defend an unpopular opinion; its examination of the jury system, the democratic process and the concept of reasonable doubt; and its careful, humanistic weighing of the decision to punish a crime by taking a life.
Opening with the judge's final instructions heard offstage before jury deliberations begin (the voice is Robert Prosky's), the play deals with a case that seems open-and-shut to 11 of the 12 men -- the fatal knifing, allegedly by a slum kid, of his father. While the accused was a Latino in previous productions, Ellis declines to establish his identity beyond that of a 16-year-old from an ethnic minority.
The spark to the dramatic flame is Juror #8 (Boyd Gaines), initially the sole dissenting not-guilty vote -- not because he's convinced the defendant is innocent but because he's unconvinced the evidence is sufficiently rock solid in a case where the death sentence will apply.
As each of the characters airs his views, the case is taken apart and the unenterprising work of the court-appointed defense attorney is called into question, prompting the jurors to change their verdict one by one until staunchly unbending Juror #3 (Philip Bosco), the most vehement advocate of a guilty verdict, breaks down and goes along with the majority decision.
Gaines and Bosco have the meatiest roles, the former a quietly intelligent voice of reason, stability and unintimidated independent thought, the latter a hotheaded bully, his judgment clouded by bitter personal experience that ultimately unlocks his painful emotional exposure.
But alongside these controlled, anchoring perfs is a superb ensemble fleshing out Rose's complex characterizations, each of them taking a bracing turn in the spotlight. This studiedly democratic aspect gives the play a somewhat schematic feel but also helps make it the sturdy chestnut it is.
Their emotions steadily cranked up with each progressive shift in the vote, the seasoned cast of stage vets is without a weak link.
Tom Aldredge brings a touching, fragile authority to the most elderly and perhaps most open-minded juror, who chimes in only when he has something carefully considered to say. As an unfailingly well-mannered Eastern European emigrant more sensitized to issues of democracy and prejudice, Larry Bryggman imbues his character with a precise correctness befitting his trade as a watchmaker.
Peter Friedman fuels the most bigoted of the jurors with pent-up rage and resentment, making his explosive speech one of ugly revelation. James Rebhorn's smart, brittle stockbroker is a methodical stickler for hard facts. John Pankow's aggressive wise-ass, anxious to finish deliberating so he can get to a Yankees game, is unapologetically a modest thinker and all too human.
Even the less volatile characters register effectively. Kevin Geer's soft-spokenness and seeming lack of self-assurance deftly disguise a not entirely docile personality; Mark Blum makes a measured, fair-minded foreman; and Michael Mastro backs his prickly defensiveness with dignity as the juror whose background is closest to that of the accused. Robert Clohessy conveys a warmly humble nature as a housepainter accustomed to letting his boss do his thinking and willing, up to a point, to bow to the sharper intellects around him. While as a shallow advertising man, Adam Trese brings an uneasy self-awareness of the thinness of his moral fiber.
Countering the static nature of the action, Ellis keeps the restless men moving whenever possible around Allen Moyer's unfussy set, which realistically conjures an institutional feel. The set shifts laterally at various times during the action to reveal private conversations taking place in an adjoining restroom.
Michael Krass' costumes are subtle and unshowy (Moyer and Krass also teamed on this season's "Reckless"), while Paul Palazzo's lighting ably reflects both the deadening heat and the gathering storm.