A successful production of Twelve Angry Men
seems to consist in playing it close to the ground, honoring authorial intent. The play doesn't lend itself to aggressive interpretation or experimentation, for the simple reason that it would be difficult to imagine twelve white men having this discussion outside of a United States courtroom. Audiences already know what courtrooms look like, what they sound like. Deviations from that norm aren't rewarded—they're baloney.
For the most part, Scott Ellis' production of Twelve Angry Men
, brought to town by Broadway Across America Portland
, does a good job with that. Reginald Rose's 1954 script follows the deliberations of an all-white jury as they decide whether to execute a minority defendant, in one nuclear act. This incarnation plays it safe and solid, preferring authenticity of character and set to theatrical flourish, with one small exception. Well, one glaring exception: Richard Thomas.
To give you some idea of his role—the lead—Juror #10 begins as a lone dissenting voice, who claims to vote "not guilty" only because he doesn't believe in executing someone without a discussion. But somehow, over the course of the play's one act, he reasons, baits, and cajoles his comrades into a unanimous "not guilty" verdict.
To sell a character like that, you need to fly under the radar. You need to make your points obliquely and refuse the limelight, all the while appearing to be just another guy, nonthreateningly macho and coolly nonchalant. No self-righteous whiner is ever going to convince a roomful of his peers to change their minds, but that's exactly how Richard Thomas plays it. He delivers his lines with the maudlin quaver of a made-for-TV martyr, and it falls flat.
The rest of the cast, though, are solid, and they work well as an ensemble, moving with the organic synchrony of a school of fish. It's tough to pick favorites, but Julian Gamble especially shines as Juror #3, the owner of a courier service. Over the course of the play, Juror #3 metamorphoses from a loud-mouthed bully to a man wracked by the Freudian fear of being killed by his son, an evolution that Gamble dexterously manages. Also, impeccable comedic timing by James Greene and Charles Borland (Jurors #9 and #6) help keep the show light.
If audience members are familiar with Twelve Angry Men
, they most likely know it through Sidney Lumet's 1957 film adaptation of the same name. Lumet's production is fine filmmaking, but it's not the last word, and this revival brings a lot new to the table. For instance, the handling of racism—an increasingly apparent subtext for the action of the play—is a lot better now than it was then. In Lumet's somewhat idealized version, bigoted Juror #10 (Ed Begley) begins a racist tirade loudly, but ends quiet and abashed, because all his fellow jurors have turned their backs on him. In the Keller, Juror #10 (Kevin Dobson) grows only louder and more virulent, despite the obvious discomfort of his peers. Director Scott Ellis' interpretation strikes me as much more honest: racism isn't going away just because it's impolite. If anything, it grows increasingly strident. That intention is only augmented by Dobson's delivery, haunting and unforgettable. In many ways, it makes the show.