One day recently during rehearsals for George Street Playhouse’s upcoming “Twelve Angry Men” — a classic drama that takes place in the jury room where a 12-man jury is deciding the fate of a teenage boy from the slums who is on trial, accused of stabbing his father — a strange, serendipitous, even ironic event occurred when some of the cast on lunch break went to a nearby deli.
“There were a number of other people there, each wearing stickers on their lapels identifying them as jurors number whatever,” says director David Saint. As it turns out, they were sitting on the case of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers student who allegedly made secret videos of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, involved in a homosexual act, which were then posted on the Internet. As the whole world knows, on September 22, 2010, Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
“Those jurors are hearing a case a block behind where we are rehearsing another jury, at another time — 50 years ago. Whatever the problems with our political system, this very unique set up of 12 individuals deciding a case, still resonates and seems ultimately to work.”
As Saint, the theater’s artistic director, chose the plays for this current season, primary in his mind was the death last summer of his friend and mentor the great playwright and director Arthur Laurents. Saint decided to dedicate the season to Laurents and feature plays that spoke directly to the ideals that he espoused.
In recent years Laurents (94 when he died) saw 10 of his plays on stage at George Street including his last play, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” which premiered there in 2009. His long career goes back to 1945 when his play “Home of the Brave,” dealing with racial prejudice, premiered on Broadway. He is best known for writing the books for the musicals “West Side Story” (1957) and “Gypsy” (1959), both of which he directed in revivals just in the last few years, again on Broadway to much acclaim. His numerous movie scripts included one of the most popular films of 1973, “The Way We Were,” starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand.
Laurents’ first play at George Street in March, 1999, was “Jolson Sings Again” about the McCarthy Era Hollywood blacklisting. “Arthur fought against social injustice his whole life, whether it was during Hollywood blacklisting or by refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee and being blacklisted himself,” says Saint. “He stood firm for human rights, being proudly gay for years and years — he was with a beloved partner for 52 years.”
Saint selected the play “Red” for the season opener, in which the relationship between the artist Rothko and his assistant, mirrored, in a way, the mentoring relationship between Laurents and Saint.
Now Saint is directing a drama, as he describes it, “about one individual who has the courage to stand up for his convictions in the face of an overwhelming majority and staying true to what he believed despite overwhelming odds. That’s very much who Arthur was.”
“Twelve Angry Men” began in 1954 as a television drama, then was expanded four years later as a motion picture. The play, by Reginald Rose, reached Broadway in 2004, in a production by the Roundabout Theater, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
In the film, actor Jack Klugman — who George Street audiences will remember in “The Sunshine Boys” in 2007 — appeared as the youngest man on the jury and is the last living member of that cast. In what seemed the perfect bookend Saint cast him in this production as “the old man,” Juror No. 9.
Saint also says he cast the veteran actor to take his mind off of his infirmities. “He was having a rough time getting around, using a chair or walker most of the time. That depressed him. He’s an actor and wants to work.” During the early weeks of rehearsal, he was “a blessing and inspiration to all of us,” says Saint. “Jack would say things like, ‘I’m not firing on all cylinders. I don’t have half of what I had as an actor, strength and stamina.’ Half of what he has is more than most actors have.” But after three weeks of rehearsal, he had to withdraw because of health problems.
Replacing Klugman is Terry Layman, who was the Broadway understudy to the late Tom Aldredge in that role — and went on stage a number of times. “Jack’s spirit in the rehearsal room has been an inspiration to the entire cast and me,” Saint says. “While I am saddened at the thought of not having him in this cast, his health is paramount. We send him every good wish for a speedy and complete recovery. Terry is very familiar with the role. We are extremely fortunate to have him join this excellent cast of Broadway, television, and film actors.”
In addition to Layman, the cast includes George Street veterans Jim Bracchitta (“Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are”), David Adkins (“The Seafarer”), David Schramm (GSP’s “The Wayfarer” and the television series “Wings”), Jonathan Hadary (GSP’s “Jolson Sings Again and Broadway’s “Gypsy”), and John Bolger (“Lips Together, Teeth Apart”).
Other cast members include four-time Tony Award nominee Gregg Edelman (“City of Angels,” “Passion”), Scott Drummond (“Mother Courage and Her Children” at La Jolla Playhouse), James Rebhorn (TV’s “Homeland” and “White Collar”), Michael Sirow (the films “Meskada,” “Union Square”), Jonathan C. Kaplan (Broadway’s “Falsettos,” “The Diary of Anne Frank”) and Andrew Nogasky (“Brink!” at Actors Theater of Louisville).
In “Twelve Angry Men” the jury must come to a unanimous decision, and there is one hold-out who has “reasonable doubt.” During the play much is revealed about each of the jurors, some of whom have personal biases that play into their judgment. None of the jurors is identified by name, merely by their jury person number.
Set in 1955, “Twelve Angry Men” is an all white, all male jury. Some recent productions of this play have attempted to be more “politically correct” with women and non-white jurors. But Saint feels it is better to be true to the time the play was originally intended. He says a strong cast of male actors has been assembled to play the jurors, many of whom will be familiar faces to George Street audiences.
Each juror in “Twelve Angry Men” has a unique point of view that will resonate with times and events to which many audience members can relate. “It’s teaching me a lot of life lessons during rehearsal,” Saint says. With Laurents and Klugman very much on his mind, he is especially concerned about a particular American dream: “Many are working to reach retirement — the goal, the golden dream, relax and do nothing. This is completely a fallacy. It’s how we’ve been indoctrinated.” Saint’s own father retired when he was 69, and “with nothing to do but play golf, he actually started to die.”
Arthur Laurents would be pleased with the selection of this play. His obituary in the New York Times noted: “Laurents explored questions of honesty and self deception, guilt and innocence, love and loyalty. That was in keeping with his belief that a writer’s job was not only to entertain, but also to illuminate.” Laurents himself wrote in a 1995 essay, also in the New York Times, “Entertainment is dessert; it needs to be balanced by the main course: theater of substance.”
The one hold-out in the jury in “Twelve Angry Men” is a fighter for what he believes justice is. This play is a classic with the theme “with justice for all.”
Arthur Laurents was just such a fighter and David Saint continues this mission. According to Saint, continuing to write was imperative to Laurents. “What finally ended Arthur’s life was when his hands began to shake so that he could no longer use the keyboard of his computer, and his vision was getting blurry. Not being able to continue to create, he felt that there was nothing left for him.”
“Twelve Angry Men,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. In previews, Wednesday and Thursday, March 14 and 15. Opening night, Friday, March 16. Runs through Sunday, April 8. Courtroom drama features David Canary, Jim Bracchitta, David Adkins, Lee Sellars, David Schramm, Jonathan Hadary, John Bolger, Gregg Edelman, Scott Drummond, James Rebhorn, Michael Sirow, Jonathan C. Kaplan, and Andrew Nogasky. $25 to $62. www.gsponline.org or 732-246-7717.