NEW YORK — They should have renamed it “A Lot of Time to Kill.”
The producers stuck instead with the title it bore at Arena Stage, “A Time to Kill,” the title it shares with the best-selling John Grisham novel on which it is based. And as fate would have it, the resulting, largely re-cast stage production is pretty much the same robotic affair on Broadway that it seemed two years ago in its world premiere in Washington.
The addition of a few better-known but by no means household names — among them, Tom Skerritt, Fred Dalton Thompson and Tonya Pinkins — has done little to amp up the plodding currents of this garden-variety courtroom drama, which had its official opening Sunday night at the Golden Theater. If anything, the transfer of playwright Rupert Holmes’s adaptation, under Ethan McSweeny’s direction, sets in higher relief the deficits in character and plot that place this venture in the realm of the remarkably routine.
As a staging ground for Broadway, Arena has experienced an upswing of late, with the opening of “A Time to Kill” and, earlier this month, the more vivaciously entertaining “A Night With Janis Joplin,” which enjoyed two successful runs at Arena as “One Night With Janis Joplin.” The ongoing talk, too, of a Broadway future for the Estelle Parsons vehicle “The Velocity of Autumn,” which ended its Arena run Sunday, gives the impression of some evolving shuttle service between the Arena complex in Southwest Washington and the theaters of Times Square.
Whether this cluster of events is an anomaly, the fact that a company’s output generates interest elsewhere can have some value in propping up its stature. (By virtue of its distinguished history, Arena already enjoys some national prominence.) The caveat has to do with what kind of artistic achievement these high-visibility transfers represent. It’s easy to cement an impression, with some decidedly middle-of-the-road fare, that a company’s exports are not of the most rigorously worthwhile caliber.
One only need look at the work being sent into the world from another company in a major Northeast cultural hub — American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. — to sense some distinction between productions seeking to make a profound impact and those aspiring to some humbler degree of enchantment. The sensational revival of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” — with Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith — that opened on Broadway last month at the Booth Theater was minted at A.R.T., as was the Tony-winner “Once” and last season’s jazzy (though over-produced) Tony-winning revival of “Pippin.” D.C. audiences will soon be able to see A.R.T.’s “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” another Tony winner, arriving at Christmastime at the revitalized National Theatre. Still to come from the Cambridge troupe: the Broadway debut of “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s drama about President Lyndon Johnson’s successful shepherding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ.
The pieces wending their way north from Arena’s spaces, sadly, are not in that league, although the concert-style “A Night With Janis Joplin” at the Lyceum Theatre boasts an astonishing turn by Mary Bridget Davies as the singer with the 24-carat screech, who died of a heroin overdose at 27. Anyone who heard her uncannily authentic-sounding renditions of “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain” and “Me and Bobby McGee” in Arena’s Kreeger Theater knows how arrestingly Davies channels Joplin. Although the depiction of Joplin’s hard living is perplexingly muted, Davies exudes the right kind of earthy air as she recounts Joplin’s life story and the debt she owed to such African American blues and soul greats as Odetta, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin.
Director-playwright Randy Johnson successfully cranks up “A Night With Janis Joplin” for Broadway’s more intense spotlight. If this is a tribute show, it is also fashioned as Joplin’s tribute to these other eminences, given exuberant voice here by De’Adre Aziza, Taprena Michelle Augustine, Allison Blackwell and Nikki Kimbrough. The band, under Ross Seligman’s direction, sounds great, too.
While you’re abundantly aware of “Joplin’s” pulse, the facts in evidence at “A Time to Kill” lead you to an opposite verdict. It’s a trial all right, a slog through the halls of Mississippi jurisprudence and the case of one Carl Lee Hailey (John Douglas Thompson), who comes to the courthouse and shoots to death the men accused of raping and nearly killing his 10-year-old daughter.
The Grisham formula mandates that the odds be stacked against the appealing young defense lawyer (Sebastian Arcelus, a holdover from Arena) and the spunky law school intern (Ashley Williams) going up against the preening, gravel-voiced district attorney (Patrick Page). Skerritt plays a disbarred sot of a legal eagle, Fred Dalton Thompson is the surprisingly fair-minded judge and Pinkins portrays the hand-wringing wife of the defendant.
Lacking a lick of suspense or any character (aside from Thompson’s Hailey) about whom you are allowed to care much, “A Time to Kill” comes across as little more than a polished, live-action book report. The proceedings run easily more than twice as long as an episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” and at Broadway’s prices, you can find far more satisfaction with this dramatic genre on your DVR.
Adapted by Rupert Holmes from John Grisham’s novel. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. About 2 hours 35 minutes. At the Golden Theater,
252 W. 45th St., New York.
Written and directed by Randy Johnson. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At the Lyceum Theatre,
149 W. 45th St.
By Tennessee Williams. Directed by John Tiffany. Through Feb. 23 at the Booth Theater, 222 W. 45th St.
For all three productions, visit www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.