Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by Michael Krass. Lighting design by Paul Palazzo. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Original Compositions by John Gromada. Cast: Tom Aldredge, Mark Blum, Philip Bosco, Larry Bryggman, Robert Clohessy, Peter Friedman, Boyd Gaines, Kevin Geer, Michael Mastro, Matte Osian, John Pankow, James Rebhorn, Adam Trese.
This election year has seen no shortage of political theatre, but one of the most provocative entries of the season to date barely mentions politics at all. No one's running for office and there are no earth-shaking decisions to make, yet the power invested in a tiny group of people is of paramount importance. One man's vote has, perhaps, never been as critical.
It's not just the looming presidential election in the real world - now less than a week away - that drives these basic, American ideals so powerfully home, though to many the importance of this presidential election cannot be overstated. The central plot point of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, though, is much smaller: Will a jury of twelve men send a 16-year-old boy to the electric chair for the murder of his father? Even so, this question is seismic enough to send shock waves through the American Airlines Theatre, where the show is receiving its Broadway premiere.
The stakes always seem sky-high in this production, and director Scott Ellis and his 13-person cast have taken great pains to divorce themselves from existing expectations. Don't expect warmed-over imitations of Henry Fonda or Lee J. Cobb, who starred in the work's 1957 film (it was originally a 60-minute TV movie in 1954), but also be prepared for very little deviation in terms of the story. This stage version of Twelve Angry Men, first performed in 1964, is, like the films, as much a blistering character study as an examination of the American melting pot and the judicial system that keeps it in check.
It's also, at its core, deeply patriotic; the belief that the U.S. legal system does work - and, when unimpeded, will do good - is central. The story's primary focal point, known only as Juror Eight (Boyd Gaines), is at first the sole holdout in an 11-1 guilty vote; whatever verdict the jurors reach, it must be unanimous, with no lingering reasonable doubt. Eight sets his sights not on proving the others wrong, but rather on getting them to look at the situation in a clear-eyed way not affected by their personal prejudices or biases.
Some of these, as in the case of Juror Three (Philip Bosco) and Juror Ten (Peter Friedman) are obvious, and more openly stated; Three has had difficulties with his own son, and Ten was apparently raised with specific beliefs about certain types of people. (The ethnic background of the defendant is never given, but it's known he's poor and comes from a violent upbringing.) But in most of the other cases, the reasons for the guilty votes are less subtle and easily addressed by Eight.
Rose works deliberately and carefully in peeling away the layers of artifice away from the men, and allowing a fuller picture of them - and America, at its best and worst - to form. Rose's writing; Ellis's detailed, but never fussy, direction; Paul Palazzo's lights; and Allen Moyer's cramped, institutional set all help beautifully establish the stifling heat of the jury room on a late summer day, making the tension between the men resonate even more strongly. Though the central set piece is a table around which the men sit, stand, or walk, it never proves a limiting factor.
With a cast this good, though, it likely wouldn't. Only Gaines disappoints, and only early on; once he warms up to his character and his central responsibility to the defendant, he takes charge and delivers a compelling performance. Bosco and Friedman masterfully ration their characters' emotional outbursts, knowing just the opportune moments to set off their destructive explosions. Adam Trese, as Juror Twelve, plays his waffling ad executive with a natural ease and humor, and Larry Bryggman delivers a particularly stirring speech about his belief in democracy and the judicial system. James Rebhorn, as the convinced-of-guilt Four, drops his mild-mannered façade long enough to unleash a rebuke so stunning, it reduces the theater to utter silence.
But everyone delivers on their opportunities to shine, and of the remaining performers - Mark Blum, Kevin Geer, Michael Mastro, Robert Clohessy, John Pankow, Tom Aldredge, and Matte Osian as a guard - there's not a weak link to be found. Just as in the story itself, when everyone is working together, they create something that, if not great, is very good.
That idea - and that one person, or a small group of people, can actually make a significant difference - is one worth remembering, especially now. It's easy to become disillusioned by a barrage of facts, supposed facts, obfuscations, and outright lies, whether in a court or in an election. But finding the strength to push all this aside and participate in the process to the best of your ability is an important part of Twelve Angry Men - and life in America - is all about.