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A CurtainUp Review
Twelve Angry Men
By Elyse Sommer
About ten years ago, a friend who was teaching a course in broadcast communications at a Long Island college considered himself lucky to get access to some cinescopes of Reginald Rose's TV plays, including his famous Twelve Angry Men. Here was a chance to introduce his students to writing that earned 1950s television its "golden age" tag -- dramas that, within the medium's commercial and time constraints, explored meaningful themes and defined characters with a few strokes of the pen. Imagine my friend's disappointment at the students' lukewarm response to Rose's work. About twenty minutes into Twelve Angry Men, several actually shouted "Fast forward!"
The Roundabout Theatre Company's audiences, unlike those impatient students, love a healthy dose of retro. The Roundabouters who've been flocking to Twelve Angry Men probably saw the original Studio One teleplay or the Sidney Lumet film version, or both, they wouldn't use a zapper if they could to eliminate one hokey moment of what feels like a revival but is actually its first Broadway production.
If you accept the Roundabout's Twelve Angry Men for what it is -- a period piece that not only makes no attempt to update the play or its setting, but does everything possible to soak up its old chestnut flavor -- you won't be disappointed with Scott Ellis's staging. Despite characters' boiled down to types and the verdict's inevitable outcome, watching these men move from certainty to "reasonable doubt" still holds your interest. It's also a fascinating forefather to Reginald Rose's own series, The Defenders, which in turn was a forbear to Law & Order, the series that supports so many actors' stage habit. For old-timers it comes as a reminder that before series and reality shows came to dominate television there were playwright friendly programs like Studio One, Playhouse 90 and Play of the Week.
While Sin further west on 42nd Street ( review) is a much more au courant courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men boasts the drive and energy that typifies a good melodrama. Director Ellis builds on this drive with the way he keeps his jury moving around to raise the temperature in the literally and figuratively steamy jury room. To abet his staging, there's the dead on authenticity of Allen Moyer's pre-air conditioning jury room which includes a much used water fountain and a sliding platform for occasional bathroom interchanges. And, undeterred by not having the more colorful wardrobes called for by a mixed-sex period piece, Michael Krass provides telling touches like '50s tie pins and the impeccable seersucker suit worn by Juror #4 (James Rebhorn), who, unlike the others, never seems to sweat.
What makes this Twelve Angry Men fly higher than the planes owned by the company for whom the theater where it's playing is named, is the cast. From the moment they amble on stage the actors reveal the personality traits and backgrounds that will influence their decision about the sixteen-year-old ghetto boy whose trial for murdering his father has brought them to this room. They also reveal themselves to be consummate pros -- twelve reasons to buy a ticket if you haven't already done so.
These jurors may be beset by certainties and uncertainties, but one thing is for certain: Each gives a solid gold performance. From Boyd Gaines as juror #8 (played by Franchot Tone on TV and Henry Fonda in the Lumet film), who turns the initial, almost unanimous guilty verdict into a tense inquiry into the facts that threaten to turn them from willing hangman into a hung jury to Philip Bosco's unlikable and most unyielding pro-guilty juror #3, this is everyone's finest hour and thirty fine minutes.
I could single out Michael Mastro's Juror #5 who touchingly and amusingly identifies with the defendant's tenement background, or Kevin Geer's timid Juror #2 who so deliciously finds his voice, or Tom Aldredge's senior citizen Juror #9 whose mind moves fast enough to understand the holes in an older witness's testimony. But that's not to say the other jurors aren't equally riveting.
The outcome of the jurors' deliberations will surprise no one. Neither will the actors' making a clean sweep of all the ensemble excellence awards when the awards season rolls around.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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