'Twelve Angry Men' Returns With Conviction
Friday, October 6, 2006
As if shot from a cannon, "Twelve Angry Men" rattles the eardrums and practically barrels down the aisles of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. In this crackling, short-fused incarnation of the 1950s jury-room drama, the actors don't so much deliberate as detonate.
Pow! Wham! No one actually gets off a haymaker, but in the goading flow of Scott Ellis's direction, you expect a referee to barge into the dingy room with the bad fluorescent lighting and stop the brawl. For 90 vein-popping minutes, the men bellow, sob, snarl, plead, sputter, grandstand and ball their fists as they go to war over the fate of a teenage murder suspect who in a variety of revealing ways gets under the skin of each of them.
Is this any way to run a justice system? On a stage, it is! Reginald Rose's play -- adapted from his own television script -- is not the subtlest piece of writing, not when the drama's heavies have to growl out lines such as, "You lousy bunch of bleeding hearts!" Rose has stocked it, too, with the kind of easy-to-parody gallery of divergent characters you find gathered in the parlor at the end of an Agatha Christie novel.
Of course, that Rose wants to revel with such scenery-chewing vigor in the glories of our constitutional guarantees is to a theatergoer's benefit. "Twelve Angry Men" may show its sympathies too transparently and editorialize about the issue of prejudice as if we've got to be carefully taught, but the play is never a pedantic bore about it. And every now and then, we can all be forgiven for indulging our secret yearnings for a histrionic hoot.
The production visiting the Kennedy Center for almost three weeks began life at the subscription-based Roundabout Theatre Company in Manhattan in fall 2004. The response was so strong that it ended up running for seven months, and in the aftermath the theater decided to take it on the road. The re-cast touring version is built around the performance of Richard Thomas in the pivotal role of thoughtful Juror No. 8, a man who fearlessly stands alone against a bevy of jury room bullies eager to convict the young defendant on the evidence of who he is and where he comes from.
The jurors' numbers are the only identification the audience gets; the device reaffirms the men as archetypal. The solid anchor in the room is Thomas, playing the role Henry Fonda essayed in the 1957 film -- a version rerun regularly on classic movie channels. No. 8 is a classic himself, the man who can't be bought, who believes so passionately in the humanitarian aims of the process that he's willing to absorb any magnitude of rebuke in the cause of justice.
Thomas, an actor of innate intelligence, is effortlessly persuasive in the role. Heck, you'd want him on your jury. (Unless, perhaps, you were guilty.)
Rose gives No. 8 such a vivid spectrum of adversaries and potential allies on the jury that even if the winners and losers are clear, it's still kind of delicious to watch the dominoes fall ever more in No. 8's favor. The hard guys on the panel are the fiery No. 3 (Randle Mell), whose antipathy to the defendant is triggered by the bad blood between him and his son; No. 7 (Mark Morettini), who's seeking a quick verdict so that he can get to the ballgame; and No. 10 (Julian Gamble), a paranoid bigot who sees the accused as the member of a minority group infecting the nation as if it were a bacterium. Cerebral No. 4 (Jeffrey Hayenga) is in the mix to show that not everyone sticking to "guilty" is a hothead.
The entire play takes place in the jury room after the panel has gotten the judge's instruction (via the voice of Robert Prosky). No. 8, though, does not begin the play convinced of the boy's innocence, nor does he try to solve the crime. Rather, he says the facts point to reasonable doubt, an argument that drives the rest of the jurors crazy.
One by one, though, as he diagrams with a virtuoso grasp of evidentiary validity the holes in the prosecution's case, he wins each of them over, including meek No. 2 (Todd Cerveris), big-hearted No. 6 (Charles Borland), kindly old No. 9 (Alan Mandell) and German-born No. 11 (David Lively). The man in the foreman's chair is an actor you probably recall from his years on a bar stool: George Wendt of "Cheers" fame, playing the secondary role without apparent vanity.
Something theatrically irresistible adheres to the idea of 12 men of wildly different temperaments and views being forced to coexist until they have reached a consensus. A particularly seductive formula, perhaps, for times as polarized as our own.
The piece is set in New York in 1954, the year of the landmark civil-rights verdict Brown v. Board of Education , and you can feel Rose's own righteous anger at the currents in American society that allow the majority to holds its prejudices as more sacred than the inalienable rights of others. The writer's sympathy, however, is pitched far too obviously in No. 8's direction, so that the ranting of No. 10 and the hysteria of No. 3 become egregiously hyperbolic.
Ellis, the director, cannot do much about that. But he does, to impressive effect, keep the tension mounting. Allen Moyer's set is splendidly institutional, down to the old mounted fan and the standard-issue Venetian blinds. The relentless pace feels just right, too. Aside from the bigot's inexplicably sudden surrender, the breakdown of resistance by each of Thomas's rhetorical adversaries sends a bit of a chill up the spine.
The actors are such a well-drilled ensemble that on the night I saw the play they were unfazed by an unscripted gaffe: A door slam sent a wall clock crashing to the floor, shattering its glass cover. Calmly, the actors set about cleaning it up and, from my seat, it seemed, without missing a cue. Now that's what I call a fighting unit.
Twelve Angry Men , by Reginald Rose. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set, Allen Moyer; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Paul Palazzo; sound, Brian Ronan; original music by John Gromada; fight director, Rick Sordelet. With Jim Saltouros, T. Scott Cunningham. Approximately 95 minutes. Through Oct. 22 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http:/