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A CurtainUp Review
Murder in the First
I accuse Alcatraz of the torture of Willie Moore! I accuse Alcatraz of practices more fitting to the Spanish Inquisition than the United States of America. I accuse Alcatraz of something even more heinous than the murder of one man. I accuse the warden and associate warden and the institution know as Alcatraz of crimes against humanity! Willie Moore will not be the only defendant here, Alcatraz is on trial! — Henry Davidson, attorney for Willie Moore.
Chad Kimball
(Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)
Set in a time when much of the country was mesmerized by Joe DiMaggio’s 1940’s record hitting streak of 56 games, Murder in the First currently at 59E59 Theaters, focuses on a battle for criminal justice. The battleground is Alcatraz. It's name, “the slammer,” for the heavy steel doors slamming shut, is still synonymous with worst of the worse prisons.

Dan Gordon’s play provocatively dramatizes the real story of imprisoned Willie Moore and Henry Davidson, the inexperienced but determined attorney, assigned to his case.

A successful outcome of the case at first seems as impossible as their personal relationship. Yet, Davidson's effets do eventually lead to a final slamming of the doors of “The Rock.”

Directed with a keen point of view by Michael Parva, the drama flows and fascinates like a juicy beach read. An interesting 15-member castdeliveris some fine performances. Most moving of all is Chad Kimball (Memphis) as Willie Moore, the play's emotional crux. Riveting to watch, Kimball vividly reveals all facets of Willie's humanity as he relates his story to Henry. He alternates between anger, neediness, even sparks of humor. His pathetic lost life makes Henry understand that the need for his help is profound, and beyond anything he does legally.

When Henry first meets Willie, he is curled up on his cell floor in a primeval, almost catatonic state. He is about to be tried for the vicious murder with a spoon of another inmate. Considering the many witnesses, it’s a case impossible to win —until Henry shifts to a new direction after learning that before the murder, Willie after being caught trying to escape spent over three years in solitary with little food, no conversation, almost no daylight. Thus, Henry gears his case to show that while Willie is undeniably guilty, so is Alcatraz for its inhumane treatment. In short, Henry shifts his focus from defending Willie to prosecuting the prison.

Guy Burnet, a London actor in his notable New York stage debut, nails his portrait of Henry with a convincing American accent. His Henry is harried and frustrated, and as he gets to know Willie, deeply moved. His approach and resolution could end his legal career before it begins. Yet he persists even though he lacks the support of family and colleagues. Even his brother, Byron (John Stanisci), an acclaimed lawyer, wages a high-powered battle to take this difficult case from Henry. He does get help in gaining sympathy for Willie's cause from a snappy Winchell-esque radio reporter, Hoolihan (Joseph Adams), but it comes only in exchange for inside information. This is just one of the page-turning twists and artful turns as the trial proceeds.

Prosecutor, Daren Kelly (Bill McNeill), and associate warden Milton Glen (Jim Lorenzo) are blatantly bad guys However, Warden Harold Hunson is portrayed with restraint. Veteran stage, screen and TV actor, Robert Hogan paints a layered portrait of Hudson who was well-respected in prison reform and designed Alcatraz as inescapable. Though Hudson defends the prison’s solitary section, calling it the “lower cells,” though upon hearing evidence of the actual barbarism, we see shadows of guilt and sorrow pass over his face.

Thomas Ryan bluntly plays an antagonistic Judge Clawson. Larisa Polonsky as Mary McCasslin, is on the mark as a plucky, ambitious lawyer and Henry’s fiancée. John Stanisci comes on strong as the autocratic older brother, Byron, determined to help Henry, but on strictly on his terms. In one of the most poignant scenes, Anthoula Katsimatides provides a sharp portrait of a hardened hooker with a soft heart. For all these fine performances, it's Chad Kimball who's at the heart of the story and he doesn't disappoint; neither does Guy Burnet.

Mark Nayden’s versatile set design displays Willie’s cell on one side and on the opposite side, Henry’s law office and apartment, cluttered with cardboard file boxes. At the center of the stage is the courtroom, elaborate with wood paneling and a decorative window backdrop. David Castenada’s lighting effectively and deftly highlights scene changes. Henry Davidson’s often wrinkled brown suit and Mary McCasslin’s fitted 1940’s-style suits, sensible shoes and eyeglasses on a chain, are examples of Tristan Raines’ skillful costume choices. Quentin Chiappetta somber mood ambiance adds yet another touch to make Murder in the First succeed as an gripping 1940’s-style thriller.

Murder in the First by by Dan Gordon
Directed by Michael Parva.

Cast: Chad Kimball, Guy Burnet, Larisa Polonsky, Jim Lorenzo, Robert Hogan,Thomas Ryan, Ryan Scoble, John Fitzgibbon, John Stanisci, Daren Kelly, Joseph Adams, J. Stephen Brantley, Ian Holcolm, Anthoula Katsimatides, Richard Fiske.
Set Design: Mark Nayden
Costume Design: Tristan Raines
Hair and Wig Design: Leah Loukas
Lighting Design: David Castaneda
Original Music and Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta
Production Stage Manager: Rose Riccardi
Running Time: Two and one-half hours with 10 minute intermission.
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues).
Tickets: $60. In preview, $45.($42 regular performances, $32 preview performances for members). Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to
Performances: Tues.-Thurs. at 7:00 PM; Fri. at 8 PM; Sat. at 2 PM, 8PM and Sun. at 3 PM, 7PM. No 7:00 shows 5/27, 6/1.
Previews: 5/25/12/ Opens: 6/6/12; Closes: 7/1/12
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 6/2/12.
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