Sometimes, in the theater, a chestnut is a chestnut for a reason — it still works.
Such is the case with Reginald Rose’s iconic 1954 “Twelve Angry Men.” His stirring ode to the humane beauty of “reasonable doubt” in the jury room is being revived with gusto, if uneven polish, by Keegan Theatre through March 25. The play, with all its juicy roles and fiery speeches, must inspire the ensemble-based Keeganites, as they also did it in 2000.
Keegan’s solid rendering does the play more than enough justice to make a trip to see it worthwhile. And if you’ve never seen “Twelve Angry Men,” not even the 1957 film with Henry Fonda, by all means experience Keegan’s production. They do it in-period. The jurors are all male and white. None of that PC “Twelve Angry Jurors” stuff.
Under Christopher Gallu’s solid direction, the actors chomp down hard on the script and never let go. This is generally a good thing, as the play was written to be a heated argument. Then again, chomping down can also encourage scenery chewing, and there’s a bit of that, as well, along with some unevenness in acting skills among the dozen cast members.
It’s a steaming hot afternoon in New York City. The 12 jurors tromp into the theater and down the center aisle onto the stage — their jury room — to vote on whether a young minority “kid” fatally stabbed his father and deserves the death penalty. Rose availed himself of many archetypes for his jury: the ignorant, blustering bigot (producing artistic director Mark A. Rhea); the quiet immigrant (Mike Kozemchak); the prosperous businessman (Kevin Adams); the gruff bully (David Jourdan); the timid old man (Richard Jamborsky); and Juror No. 8 (Colin Smith), a thoughtful fellow who has qualms about sending a young man to the electric chair on the evidence they’ve heard.
Smith’s rather affectless performance sustains the play’s moral center just fine but robs it of fire. All the fussing and fuming of the angrier jurors is fine, but you want Juror No. 8 to bring the slow burn of reason to the proceedings, and Smith isn’t quite there yet.
There are, however, several other more theatrically juicy turns. Kozemchak’s immigrant, still in awe of democracy in action, is one. Also painting vivid portraits are Adams’s executive, who keeps a level head and an open mind; Andres Talero’s nervous young fellow who, like the defendant, grew up in the slums; Timothy H. Lynch’s straightbacked jury foreman, the embodiment of dignity and occasional pique; Jon Townson’s advertising guy, who always sounds as if he’s doing a presentation for a client. As the bigoted juror, Rhea strikes a single note of agonized anger, and at high volume, but he could give the role more emotional layers.
The costumes by Erin Nugent have a convincingly lived-in, period look. The jury room (designed by Rhea), with a long wooden table and red leather office chairs, is partially encircled by a windowless brick wall.
Late in the play, director Gallu uses that windowless wall for an avant-garde moment. All the evidence that playwright Rose stacked against the young defendant has been debunked. Turning their backs on the bigot who still wants a guilty verdict, the other jurors stand up and go to face that solid brick wall, their backs to the outlier. In the script, there’s supposed to be a window. All those men staring at a blank wall may hit you as either a non sequitur or a brief step outside the play’s reality and into universality. Either way, it’s the one moment in this stalwart production that takes a little chance with a chestnut.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
by Reginald Rose. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Lighting design, Colin Dieck; sound, Jake Null. About 90 minutes. With Bradley Foster Smith, Rich Montgomery and Michael Innocenti. Presented by the Keegan Theatre company through March 25 at Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.