As a play, Dan Gordon's Murder in the First makes a terrific movie. Okay, okay, it was already a movie, released in 1995 and starring Christian Slater, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, and William H. Macy. And while one can't expect a theatrical production of the work - which Gordon himself adapted for the stage - to recreate that star power or every cinematic trick that makes movies, well, movies, the Invictus Theater Company has nonetheless succeeded quite admirably overall.
This production, which plays at Theatre 3 through April 24, is a boldly cinematic mounting as filtered through the acute theatrical sensibilities of its director, Michael Parva. With an elaborately appointed set (designed by Mark Nayden) depicting a courtroom, a jail, a law office, and a private apartment, and lights (the work of David Castaneda) that utilize slow-fades and quick-cuts to change scenes almost instantly, the play smoothly covers a great deal of ground in telling the story of the man who brought down Alcatraz.
That man, Willie Moore (Gene Silvers), was trapped in the pitch-black lower cells of the island prison for years and committed a vicious murder soon after his release. But the San Francisco public defender assigned to his case, Henry Davidson (John Stanisci), believes that he didn't act alone, that it was the inhuman treatment he received in Alcatraz that was responsible for the crime. And against the advice of all those around him, he sets out to prosecute Alcatraz while defending his client.
While Gordon's writing covers a lot of pedestrian territory - Henry fights with his fiancÚ Mary (Laurie Ann Bulman) in both personal and professional capacities; Henry's brother Byron (Dan Patrick Brady) might be heading up a conspiracy to get Henry off the case - but never ineffectively so. And as practically everything serves the story being told in one way or another, more tangential bits - like Henry's arranging a prostitute (Suzie Cho) to visit Willie in his cell to satisfy some long-held desires - still never feel extraneous.
For all the gloss of Parva's slick staging, however, it seems to uncomfortably magnify certain shortcomings in Gordon's dramatic shorthand: Very few scenes take place during the trial, which doesn't give you a good overall impression of Henry's case, and some major events happen offstage that aren't easily integrated back into the action later. This gives parts of the show a choppy, incomplete feel, that make you wonder if some key transitions were left on the cutting-room floor.
Unfortunately, a number of significant members of the 16-person cast can't compensate for this. Most notable is Stanisci, who has the largest role but gives a stiffly unlikable and unconvincing performance as the young go-getter taking on the forces of Alcatraz. Bulman and Brady are also fairly wooden in their portrayals, overplaying their antagonism to an unbalancing degree. As the genuine villains of the story, the Alcatraz warden and his assistant, William Severs and Allen McCullough are more understated and more quietly terrifying. Thomas Ryan, as an affably authoritative judge, Darren Kelly as Willie's prosecutor, and James Michael Farrell as a greasy, opportunistic reporter provide strong support.
But it's Willie who's the most important character and the play's emotional center. Silvers vividly brings him to life, intelligently charting his journey from animal-like captivity (in a disquieting prologue) to a sense of renewed, if not fully repaired, humanity. Silvers finds every bit of anger, helplessness, and desperation - stated and unspoken - that Gordon has devised, almost always succeeding at making Willie a person rather than a symbol.
It's only in the final, most blatantly scripted scenes that Silvers and Gordon encounter real problems: When Willie must confront his captors and either denounce their actions or accept the ultimate punishment for his crimes, the results are too pointedly predictable. But despite that, and an overly movie-ish voiceover ending, Murder in the First retains a beguiling power and an ability to communicate the darker, more frightening aspects of the human mind in a way both engaging and moving, whether on film or onstage.
Invictus Theatre Company