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Theater Review: Twelve Angry Men at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles

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There are bus and truck tours and there are military convoys. While technically the former, the current production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre is rolling across America with the invincibility, not to mention temperament, of the latter. The Roundabout Theatre Company production, now parked on Temple Street, may be a 50-year-old drama, but thanks to the new engine rebuilt on director Scott Ellis’s fluid blocking, it likely will have the payload of a Brinks truck when it heads out of town on May 6th.

Ellis directed a different cast in the play’s 2004 Broadway debut at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, earning the show critical praise, four Tony nominations, and a round trip National Tour ticket that gets punched in Florida after this and again in Southern California next February at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center.

This deliberation room drama about compassion versus justice did not develop along the usual play-film-television path. Originally a Studio One teleplay in 1954, it was adapted to film in 1957, becoming director Sidney Lumet’s first feature. It was also the only producing credit its star, Henry Fonda, would ever have. It became a stage play almost as an afterthought when Rose adapted it 1964, yet it did not get to Broadway until the Roundabout staging, which became that company's longest-running hit at 228 performances.

Like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None or Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers, there’s a numerical predictability to the plot of Twelve Angry Men that challenges its director and performers. However, unlike those — and most other — crime stories, the sleuths here are laymen locked in a room with only their notes, their memories, and their prejudices to see them through.

The play opens in the empty Jury Room #2 of Allen Moyer's time-capsule set. We hear the judge (Robert Prosky, in an audio holdover from Broadway) read the jury instructions: In this case, a guilty verdict will carry the death penalty. The jury's decision, guilty or not guilty, must be unanimous, but a guilty verdict must be believed by all 12 to be beyond any reasonable doubt. Even one dissenter will produce a hung jury requiring a retrial.

The 12 men are all white, all middle-aged (except the ancient Juror #9, played by Alan Mandell), and all gainfully employed (again with the exception of the retired #9). They begin with a general assumption that they lean equally toward a guilty verdict. Eleven of them do. Only Juror #8 (Richard Thomas) has misgivings about this rush to judgment. Several things trouble him, not the least of which is lock step with which his fellow jurors are ready to move on with their evenings. It falls to #8 to have his concerns answered or convince the other 11 of the need for doubt.

What keeps this from being an exercise in ticking off the conversions is, for one, Ellis’s unseen magician’s hand. He keeps the men moving without ever intruding or making their actions seems gratuitous. This is necessitated by the stage being raised and half the cast upstage of a big table and the other half with their backs to the audience, yet virtually every comment by a juror propels him up out of his seat or opens him out to the house without it seeming forced.

Ellis also has a great ally in Thomas who, as Juror #8, must create an emotional arc beyond playing the numbers. He must also prevent his character from becoming unbearably sanctimonious in his role as the conscience of America. He does this by expanding his passion midway to include excitement in his role as detective. This catches fire with the others, allowing them to have new energy for re-examination.

Among the other members of the strong cast, Randle Mell and Julian Gamble are standouts as Thomas’ most entrenched adversaries. Rose has given them Achilles’ heels that could turn them to cardboard without the kind of intensity they bring. Gamble, for example, must at one point unleash his inner monster, let it consume all the oxygen in the room, and then quietly work the evil genie back into the bottle.  He makes it painfully believable as we see his character in the aftermath, first decompressing, then losing interest.

The issues of race, justice, and minority participation in the system are the factors that most show the play's age. One might argue that Rose was not interested in (or compelled to do) more than a story about the danger of single-mindedness, hence the room full of equals, but with a defendant who is clearly a teenage member of a minority, this is so not a jury of his peers. Instead it’s a reminder of Americans who were not represented on juries for a long time. That crime was eventually solved, but it's not what's making these men angry. Still they help raise the issue, if inadvertently, so sentencing on this tour is commuted.

In 1997, with new questions regarding the meaning of reasonable doubt following the OJ Simpson trial, Showtime produced a new movie version of Twelve Angry Men directed by William Friedkin, featuring a racially diverse cast. Twenty-seven years earlier, Time Magazine‘s 1970 April issue included an article about bias in jury selection.

CREDITS by Reginald Rose, directed by Scott Ellis WITH Charles Borland, Todd Cerveris, Scott Cunningham, Julian Gamble, Jeffrey Hayenga, David Lively, Alan Mandell, Randle Mell, Mark Morettini, Patrick New, Jim Saltouros, Richard Thomas, George Wendt PRODUCTION Allen Moyer, set; Michael Krass, costumes; Paul Palazzo, lights; Brian Ronan, sound; John Gromada, music; Michael McEowen, stage management

Roundabout Theatre Company production at the Ahmanson Theatre March 28-May 6 (reviewed March 29)

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  • http://www.larta.org Rohit Shukla

    ITs a very good, even great production. The cast is uniformly good, the staging brilliant (down to period details). I don’t believe the play is dated, or shows its age. Universal themes that still resonate to this day are explored in what was obviously a much fresher, bolder way in its day, but it still has the resonance of those issues in the light of our own experience.

    Do see it – but you’ve got to catch it before May 6, when it goes on to its next location. At the Ahmanson Theater, downtown Los Angeles.