A paperback copy of John Grisham's novel "A Time to Kill" will set you back less than $10. The DVD of the film will cost a few bucks more. The new adaptation on Broadway? Tickets at the box office start at $70.
Save your money.
A puzzling version of Grisham's story which mashes up elements from both the book and the Matthew McConaughey-led movie opened Sunday at the John Golden Theatre with an inability to sustain any sense of drama.
That's pretty unforgivable since the story deals with the rape of a child, a double murder and a death row court case — all against the sounds of the KKK and NAACP protesting outside the Southern town's courthouse.
But director Ethan McSweeny and a talented cast that includes standouts Patrick Page, Tom Skerritt and Fred Dalton Thompson can't seem to get any traction with a story about the case of a black father who kills the white men who raped his daughter.
Perhaps we've all watched too many "Law & Orders" and are exhausted by listening to lawyers stipulate to this or object to that. Or perhaps we've seen this trial before, and there are no mysteries. Or perhaps the incessantly rotating set by James Noone takes all the air out of it.
Eighteen scenes whip by, each triggering a twist of the massive central turntable and a long pause with some ominous music as various props are arranged. It gets tiresome and clunky.
That also applies to the book, an adaptation by Rupert Holmes that simplifies the complex motives and emotions of the men and women in the book and film to the part of cartoons.
Stepping into the role of the seemingly overmatched defense attorney Jake Brigance is Sebastian Arcelus, who has a habit of adapting famous actors' roles onstage (he took over Will Ferrell's part in "Elf the Musical"). Here he struggles to give nuance since he's often the passive center of the script.
Page, his adversary, is at his glorious best, a smooth-talking and cocky politician with a gloriously Shakespearian bass voice. Skerritt nicely pulls off a charming disgraced and drunken lawyer and Thompson is a sure-footed judge, perfectly cast.
Ashley Williams, making her Broadway debut as Brigance's smarty-pants aide, shows confidence and great potential for comedy, but the role is tissue-thin. John Douglas Thompson as the jailed father balances uneasily between being wily and a simpleton.
Holmes has his choice of material from both book and film and so some choices are odd. Scenes between Thompson and his wife (a great Tonya Pinkins) seem true and honest, but having the newly freed man rush back to court to celebrate with Brigance is a little corny.
Holmes includes a movie scene that features a KKK member with a suitcase bomb, but in this version the KKK don't kill Brigance's dog or attack Brigance's aide. A huge burning cross with real flames is as unsubtle as, well, a huge burning cross.
There is no jury in this version — it's us. Act 2 is the trial itself and the spinning set goes into high gear. The lawyers and witnesses address us in the audience seats, but unlike Holmes' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," the final outcome is then taken out of our hands.
Nonetheless, here's the verdict: If you have time to kill, pick up the novel or catch the movie.
Now on Broadway — “A Time to Kill.”
A better title — “A Time to Think About Errands I Need To Run.”
Unfortunately, there are plenty of moments to mull to-do lists during this paint-by-numbers dramatization of John Grisham’s 1989 best seller.
Grisham based the book on a gruesome rape case. He placed it in fictional, early-’80s Clanton, Miss., where honest but ambitious lawyer Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) defends Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), a black man accused of murdering two men who raped his 10-year-old daughter.
The movie made Matthew McConaughey a star. No such luck for Arcelus in the Rupert Holmes adaptation, which is directed by Ethan McSweeny. Credible as Arcelus is — his performance really grew on me — the material lets him down.
Jake is earnest and sometimes eloquent, but not very interesting. Same goes for the trial pitting Jake against district attorney Rufus R. Buckley (Patrick Page, aptly oily) under judge Omar Noose (Fred Dalton Thompson). The case comes down to an insanity plea, with lawyers using expert psychiatrist witnesses in a game of shrink versus shrink.
The story is less about what happened and why, and more about how people respond and change. But these main characters lack depth, while secondary ones possess one trait apiece. Jake’s assistant, Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams), is brittle; Carl Lee’s wife, Gwen (Tonya Pinkins), is earnest; Jake’s mentor Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt) is a boozy punch line.
Like last year’s botched book-to-stage experiment “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “A Time to Kill” feels like a copy of a copy.
The action unfolds in and around the slatted-wood courtroom. The stage constantly spins and stops to showcase various perspectives, while the audience becomes the jury. Ironically, this take by Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) lacks a strong point of view.
Courtroom claustrophobia can create drama. But there’s no tension here. Worse, there’s no context. Clanton is roiling with racial hate. Jake risks his career, his wife and child (never seen in the play) and his life for the case. That doesn’t come through. We’re told about a burned-down house. We’re given a report about racist chants. But we don’t see or hear them.
Charged with the dramatic felony of telling instead of showing, “A Time to Kill” is guilty. Throw the book at it.
A lot happens in John Grisham’s legal thriller “A Time to Kill,” in which small-town lawyer Jake Brigance takes on a seemingly doomed client. Jake overcomes one obstacle after another to boost his case, but the outcome still hinges on his delivering a brilliant closing statement.
It follows that a stage adaptation of the book would build up to that moment when Jake rouses the courtroom — and, of course, the audience.
But when that speech finally comes in Broadway’s “A Time to Kill,” it’s not the standout it needs to be. Sebastian Arcelus is a handsome actor and a seemingly perfectly nice guy — he did once star in Broadway’s “Elf” — but he lacks the charisma to slay that scene. (Compare and contrast with Matthew McConaughey in the 1996 movie. Better still, don’t.)
This is typical of the show, which is adequately done but bland. It’s meat-and-potatoes theater — or rather, meat-and-three, since the story, adapted by Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), takes place in the South.
Jake has his work cut out for him when he takes on Carl Lee Hailey (the imposing John Douglas Thompson) as a client.
There’s no denying that Carl Lee gunned down the two low-lifes who raped and nearly killed his 10-year-old daughter: He did it outside the courthouse and surrendered immediately afterward. Not only that, but he’d told Jake what he was planning to do. A black man killing two white dudes in cold blood in Mississippi? He’ll have a tough time wriggling out of it.
Especially since D.A. Rufus Buckley smells a case that could further his political ambitions. Strapped in a pinstriped suit, the terrific Patrick Page — the former Green Goblin in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” — gives a highly satisfying performance, Southern accent oozing out of his mouth like Delta molasses.
As cartoonish a villain as Buckley is, he has a point: Carl Lee had very good reasons, but he also acted like a vigilante.
This doesn’t bother Jake and his Bad News Bears legal team — disbarred lawyer and town drunk Lucien Wilbanks (Tom Skerritt) and preppyish law student Ellen Roark (Ashley Williams). Brushing off intimidation attempts from the Ku Klux Klan, the trio sets out to help the accused and his wife (Tonya Pinkins, intense in an afterthought of a role).
Director Ethan McSweeny tries to suggest the pressure-cooker atmosphere with projections and a second-act shocker. But the production remains flat, lacking the minimum of suspense required for a white-knuckle thriller.
Enlivening the proceeds are some strong turns from the supporting cast, including former Republican US Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson as the formidable Judge Noose.
All told, this doesn’t bode well for a stage version of “Sycamore Row,” the new “Time to Kill” sequel. Then again, that could change if somebody could talk McConaughey into playing Jake Brigance on Broadway.
The ceiling fans keep twirling away up there on the stage of the John Golden Theater on Broadway, as if to dispel all the heat and tension gathering in the courtroom where much of “A Time to Kill,” a stage adaptation of the John Grisham novel, takes place. But the producers might have saved a little on the electricity bill.
I am just getting to that, your honor.
Overruled. You may proceed.
As I was about to say, this workmanlike version of Mr. Grisham’s book never succeeds in generating much steam as it moves through a tale of rape, murder and justice — the vigilante kind and the legal kind — amid the racial divisions in the deep South of the 1980s.
Adapted by Rupert Holmes, whose career has embraced pop songwriting, prose fiction, plays and musicals (notably “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”), and directed by Ethan McSweeny, this efficient but hardly pulse-racing night at the theater features some terrific actors, but it doesn’t give any of them much red meat to chew on. If you’re a Grisham obsessive with a C-note burning a hole in your pocket — not to mention two-and-a-half hours of time to slay — by all means, come on down, y’all! But in a Broadway season quickly beginning to gather its own steam, this mechanical legal procedural cannot, I’m afraid, even outdo the competition in constant rotation on TV.
Since it is gushingly billed, on the title page of the Playbill, as being “based on the classic best seller by John Grisham,” perhaps I will skip through the plot mechanics only briefly. We all know the plot of classic best sellers like “War and Peace,” right?
Objection! Unnecessary sarcasm, your honor.
Sustained. The reviewer will try to refrain from similar tactics, please.
Anyway, the grim path leading to the courtroom in small-town Clanton, Miss., where the drama ultimately culminates, begins when a couple of drugged-up white good old boys — played by Lee Sellars (the one with the nice mullet) and Dashiell Eaves (the other one) — rape and nearly lynch the 10-year-old daughter of Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), who is black.
He retaliates by ambushing them in the courtroom with an automatic weapon, and is quickly brought up on first-degree murder charges. Enlisted as his lawyer is the idealistic, independent-minded Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), who faces a tough opponent in Rufus Buckley (Patrick Page), the district attorney with an eye on the governor’s mansion. Into the courtroom they go, where the proceedings are presided over by Fred Dalton Thompson, grimacing and peering distastefully over his spectacles as the seen-it-all-and-doesn’t-give-a-dang Judge Omar Noose. Witnesses are called, examined, cross-examined. Provocative questions are posed, objected to, then quickly withdrawn, their purpose of planting a kernel of doubt or bit of inadmissible evidence having been slyly achieved.
Well, you know the drill, if you’ve read or seen any legal thrillers, or watched the 1996 movie made from the same novel, starring Matthew McConaughey as Jake, Kevin Spacey as Rufus, Samuel L. Jackson as Carl Lee and Sandra Bullock as Ellen Roark, the spunky law student who assists Jake in putting together his case, here played (blandly) by Ashley Williams.
Objection! Comparisons to movie version unfair and unjustified — the mediums are vastly different.
But, your honor, the stage version directly invites the comparison through its casting choices.
Overruled, you may continue.
As I was saying, if you’ve seen the movie, you may at times feel like you’re watching it again through a slightly blurry lens, since both Mr. Arcelus and Mr. Page seem to have been cast for their ability to impersonate their counterparts in the film.
Mr. Arcelus starred on Broadway as the title character in “Elf” (it’s a living) and has lately, more happily, been seen in the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” Here, with his noble nose and his hair curled and coifed just so, he looks a lot like a less dreamboaty Mr. McConaughey. And while Mr. Arcelus’s acting is never less than convincing, he doesn’t bring much intensity to the role, a particular drawback in the show’s final paces, when the audience is cast as the jury, and the lawyers are putting their all-important concluding statements before us. In a legal melodrama like this, a little showboating would be welcome, and Mr. Arcelus chooses to underplay the emotional manipulation.
Mr. Page doesn’t shy away from grandstanding, thank goodness. He has a gloriously resonant voice, and oozes unction as the ambitious prosecutor. But I couldn’t shake the impression that he, too, was unable to escape the snaking shadow of Mr. Spacey, the actor who has all but trademarked smiling villains — not to mention ripe Southern accents — in the movies.
Mr. Thompson lends a palpable weight and gravity to his performance as Carl Lee, whose belief that his actions were justified makes him squirm with anguish at the idea that he’ll hang for his crimes. But I felt a little anguish myself at seeing this great actor, who has distinguished himself in Shakespeare and O’Neill in recent years, drawing on so little of his talent in his first major Broadway role.
Objection! Implicit comparisons of Mr. Holmes and Mr. Grisham’s writing to Shakespeare and O’Neill egregious and unfair.
Sustained. No more of that, please.
Noted. I’ll rest my case with a couple of positive observations, your honor.
Mr. Holmes, though he’s no Mel Brooks — is that allowed? — infuses the play with some crisp humor. Much of it concerns the antics of Lucien Wilbanks, the disbarred lawyer who is a mentor to Jake, and who is played with appealingly laid-back good spirits by Tom Skerritt, nimbly engaging in a little actorly petty thievery. Lucien’s horror at discovering he’s taken a big gulp of iced tea, when he thought it was whiskey, earns one of the evening’s most robust laughs.
Actually, if I may be allowed a concluding metaphor, your honor, that bit of business felt particularly telling to me. Considering the fiery emotions and the life-or-death stakes involved (Ku Klux Klan members are offstage players, and there’s a brief vision of a burning cross), this competent but bland production goes down like a big tumbler of sweet tea. A really effective courtroom drama should sear the throat like a shot of Southern moonshine.
A hardworking turntable lets us see the courtroom from different angles during the many scenes in "A Time to Kill," Rupert Holmes' adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 bestseller about a racially charged murder trial in mean-town Mississippi.
Showing various angles, alas, is not the same as revealing different perspectives in this paint-by-number play that, not incidentally, is familiar, admired and readily available as a taut, all-star 1996 movie.
Courtroom dramas once had a long, respectable tradition as entertaining, easy-mark theater. After decades of legal procedurals on TV and film, however, it takes fresh urgency, irresistible casting and a real pulse to justify a big-ticket Broadway version.
Under Ethan McSweeny's conscientious direction, what we get instead is 2-1/2 hours of competent acting and monotonous storytelling that seldom elevate the serious plot -- a black man shoots the white men who raped his 10-year-old daughter -- from the genre of theatrical hokum.
The production does give more theatergoers a chance to discover John Douglas Thompson, a bona fide Off-Broadway star who deserves major roles in mainstream showcases. Thompson brings gripping, underplayed anguish to the portrayal of Carl Lee Hailey, the man who kills his daughter's attackers in the courthouse then turns himself in.
The story is full of standard-issue good ol' boys and cracker sociopaths and ceiling fans and decent white folks who save the good black people while braving the angry Klan. Yes, there is an onstage burning cross in one scene on James Noone's walnut-paneled set, which goes from the small courtroom to a legal office and back to the courtroom, etc., accompanied by twangy dirt-kicking music and moody overhead projections.
This is the kind of project that requires a few old-time showboaters, and we get most of what's needed. As the ambitious district attorney, Patrick Page -- Broadway's original Green Goblin -- has an unctuous basso that booms as if it has risen from the bottom of a deep, slimy well. Tom Skerritt, in his Broadway debut, leans with amusing confidence into the drunken dissipation of the disbarred master lawyer. Only Fred Dalton Thompson, who has dominated throngs as a real Tennessee senator and as the D.A. on "Law & Order," seems uneasy as the judge.
Sebastian Arcelus has a pleasant sincerity as the crusading lawyer, Ashley Williams is fun to watch but hard to believe as the legal intern with the posh background and an uncanny way of saving the day with just the right obscure fact. Tonya Pinkins, who gets more wonderful with every nonmusical role, is reduced to brief cameos as Carl's anguished wife. Where's the Broadway vehicle for her?
The veteran stage actor Patrick Page had a splashy star turn a few years ago as the Green Goblin in Spider Man; Turn Off the Dark. In Broadway's new spin on the John Grisham novel A Time to Kill, Page is cast as another slimy cartoon character.
He plays Rufus R. Buckley, district attorney for a small Mississippi county, whose present task is prosecuting a black man charged with murdering the thugs who raped and nearly killed his 10-year-old daughter. Since those thugs happened to be caucasian, Rufus, who has political ambitions beyond his station, appeals to any prejudices lurking in the all-white jury, instructing them to "reject the law of the jungle."
Page doesn't wear a mask for the part, but rather wraps himself in Southern smarm, wielding an oily smile and lowering his voice to a fiendish basso croak. At a recent preview, he had the audience eating out of his hand — that is, rooting solidly against him.
Page isn't showboating here, and neither are the other accomplished troupers who appear in A Time to Kill (* * * out of four), which opened Sunday at the Golden Theatre. They're simply giving the play, which Rupert Holmes adapted from Grisham's book with a faithful lack of nuance, the brisk, bold-faced approach that it demands.
However cliche-ridden, Holmes' Kill is more sharply drawn than the 1996 film adaptation of the novel, and does a better job weaving folksy humor into the disturbing and pompously wrought story. It helps that there's less cinematic melodrama — though this production does include creepy projected images (designed by Jeff Sugg) such as a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning house, accompanied by incidental music (by Lindsay Jones) that's heavy on wailing blues-guitar riffs.
Still, the focus is more squarely on the courtroom, which director Ethan McSweeny and scenic designer James Noone have accommodated with a turntable set that pulls us into the action. We watch the defendant, Carl Lee Hailey, as a jury would; and since he is played by the magnificent John Douglas Thomson — who delivers the most fully realized performance here — we are moved by his anguish, rage, obstinance and dignity.
Carl Lee is represented by Kill's hero, Jake Brigance, an idealistic young lawyer played on screen by Matthew McConaughey, who imbued him with a slick nobility. In the play, he seems both greener and more ambitious, traits that Sebastian Arcelus' nimble performance emphasizes, without making Jake less admirable.
A droll Tom Skerritt pops up as Jake's booze-addled mentor, while Law & Order alum and real-life counselor Fred Dalton Thompson has a drily engaging turn as a no-nonsense judge. The wonderful Tonya Pinkins and Chike Johnson bring as much as humanity as possible to the roles of, respectively, Carl Lee's devastated wife and a black sheriff whose function is to embody reason and decency.
These players ensure that the crowd-pleasing A Time to Kill is more than justly served.
Rupert Holmes’ stage adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” comes at a sweet moment for the author, whose belated sequel to that 1989 book, “Sycamore Row,” is being published this month. But a 25-year time lapse that works on the page doesn’t necessarily play on the stage, and there’s a distinctly dated feeling to the material — not the topic of Southern racism, but the youthful idealism of its hero. And despite a sturdy ensemble production helmed by Ethan McSweeny, this courtroom drama feels as if it were made for an earlier, less cynical era.
Technically, the play is, indeed, set in the early 1980s, when Grisham, then a recent law school grad, was a struggling young lawyer in the Southern town of Southaven, Miss., writing his first novel during court recesses. But it seems pretty clear that McSweeny (“The Best Man”) and his first-rate design team have gone for a timeless quality — no doubt to suggest that racism, in one ugly form or another, is always with us.
James Noone’s expressive set, made almost entirely of polished wood and sensuously curved like the staves of a barrel, has the mellow glow (provided by lighting designer Jeff Croiter) you’d expect to find in an old country courthouse in the Deep South. Whenever the walls fall away to make way for additional wooden set pieces that glide on and off the stage on a turntable, the versatile set functions just as well as jail cells and law offices and the viewing site for a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning.
Under the whirling blades of old-fashioned ceiling fans, a stern circuit court judge with the finger-pointing name of Omar Noose is presiding over a sensational case of murder. Fred Dalton Thompson, a fixture on TV’s best courtroom dramas, views this wise old bird with more subtlety, as someone both amused and appalled by the human spectacle he observes from the bench. Here, he’s faced with Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson, a hero for all seasons), an enraged African-American man who shot and killed the two redneck louts who raped and battered his 10-year-old daughter. Although the thesp asserts the father’s righteous anger with great dignity, a lawyer would have to be out of his mind to take up his defense.
The lunatic who fights for this thankless job is Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus), an idealistic but also fiercely ambitious young defense lawyer Grisham has acknowledged as his alter-ego. A legit stage presence before he emerged as a face on “House of Cards,” the clean-cut Arcelus brings a personable quality to Jake. But this high-minded character, who received the same honorable treatment from Matthew McConaughey in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 movie, seems to float above the fray, not innocent enough for his time, not cynical enough for ours.
The characters and thesps who fare best are those who seem comfortable living in this hot, dusty, nowhere town — not the young law student (Ashley Williams) standing tall for truth, justice, and northern superiority, but the county sheriff (Chike Johnson, no messing with him) just doing his job, and, best of all, the wonderfully slick, unabashedly opportunistic district attorney played with evil brilliance by Patrick Page.
At issue is something that goes beyond the letter of the law — the refusal to look beyond the color of a man’s skin to judge his actions. If Jake is ever going to get Hailey acquitted, he’s got to make the jury see themselves in his shoes, not as a black man but as a father reacting as any father might. It’s not the murder of the two white rapists that calls out both the KKK and the NAACP in dueling demonstrations, but the demand — and the resistance to that demand — for color-blind justice.
If that sounds exactly like the irrational fury that makes Tea Party extremists resist anything and everything proposed by a black president … well, so it is. But taking the play out of its time is precisely the wrong way to make a case for its timeliness.
There’s an undeniable immediacy, to be sure, to the burning cross that the KKK has staked outside Jake’s burning house. But it doesn’t translate to the period. There’s no 1980s documentary reality to the unfocussed digital projections of Ku Klux Klan rallies and NAACP protest marches. No 1980s references in Jake’s law office. Even the unbecoming suits worn in and out of the courtroom are more generic work outfits than outdated fashions. If you can’t believe a character’s shoulder padding, how can you trust anything he says?