In a rare convergence of real life with dramatic art, a verdict of guilty of all charges was reached on Friday, March 16, by the 12-member jury at the trial of Dharun Ravi for invasion of privacy and bias crimes against his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi. On the same day, Reginald Rose’s tense and absorbing 58-year-old courtroom drama “Twelve Angry Men” opened at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick.
Adding a twist of irony, the play’s director David Saint told the audience on opening night that the cast playing 12 jurors plus a court guard would often have their lunch break during rehearsals at the same time the real jurors at the nearby courthouse were also out having their lunch break. With one verdict now officially on the record books, there remains only the verdict of the critics on this production. From my perspective and based on the evidence, Saint’s production is guilty of being a resounding success.
First produced as a one-hour 1954 teleplay (produced by CBS’s Studio One series with Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone), then as a critically acclaimed 1957 film (adapted by the author and starring Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb), “Twelve Angry Men” did not make it to Broadway until 2004, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival — somewhat astonishing since it had never before been seen on Broadway. That may be neither here nor there except for the fact that the text, though it had been enhanced by revisions along the way, does not betray its slightly dated but deliberately virile perspective of twelve very different men convening in a jury room. The power of its theme, that a minority opinion has the potential to reverse a majority opinion, can never be viewed as obsolete.
The play remains set in 1954 New York. The jury room (an evocatively functional design by R. Michael Miller) is notable for a men’s room that rolls on and off the stage and a sporadically working wall fan that isn’t able to cool the tempers or quell the tantrums of a dozen jurors on a beastly hot summer day. The play is charged with the conflicting opinions of jurors, each of whom is motivated by his particular prejudice or personal demon. The play not only examines the process that empowers men to commend the taking of a life for a crime, but also how the democratic element of reasonable doubt is used as a tool to offset a rush to judgment.
The trial, in which a 16-year-old from the slums is accused of the fatal stabbing of his father, is concluding with the jury sent out to deliberate. The drama pivots around the attempts of Juror Eight (Gregg Edelman) to reverse the mindsets of the other eleven jurors, all of whom are convinced of the boy’s guilt.
Smartly manipulated by Saint, the action primarily consists of the methodic and occasionally emotionally discharged views of each of the jurors until the last and most aggressively opposed to a not-guilty verdict Juror Three (a blisteringly antagonistic James Rebhorn) is finally won over. The quiet intensity of Edelman’s performance is stunningly contrasted against Rebhorn’s relentless intimidation. Each of the remaining jurors resonates with the complexities of their various personalities, professions, and social status.
As expected, some of the actors manage to rise above the commendably high standard of acting that pervades throughout the drama. David Schramm may be best known to audiences as Roy Biggins from NBC’s hit series “Wings,” but I doubt anyone who sees him here as the bombastic, bellowing bigot Juror Ten will soon forget him in this role. Those who know Schramm’s fine acting work in the theater, both on Broadway (“Finian’s Rainbow”) and off Broadway (“The Beard of Avon”) will be impressed to see him as a raging, reprehensible, but often unwittingly funny, force of irrepressible ignorance (“Don’t gimme any of that. I’m sick and tired of facts. You think too much and you get confused.”)
While Edelman’s Broadway credits include such formidable musical hits as “Wonderful Town,” “Into the Woods,” and “Les Miserables,” he gives an impeccably cool and collected performance as the unsure, fair-minded Juror Eight who upsets the applecart and resourcefully challenges the opinions held by the others. There is no small role that the George Street favorite (in two by Arthur Laurents “Jolson Sings Again” and “Claudia Lazlo”) Jonathan Hadary cannot turn into a major role, and he does it when given the opportunity as the thoughtful soft-spoken Eastern European Juror Eleven. Jim Bracchitta is effective as the Foreman whose control over the jurors, however tested by some physical confrontations between them, is never in doubt. There isn’t a weak link among a company that is bringing this gripping, always topical drama to life.
It is interesting to note that veteran actor Jack Klugman, who was originally cast as the “old man” Juror Nine, had to withdraw while in rehearsal. He was replaced by long-time day time drama “All My Children” actor David Canary, who also had to withdraw due to a family emergency. He was then replaced by general understudy Terry Layman, who just happened to be the Broadway understudy to the late Tom Aldredge in the same role on Broadway.
All of which is to say that quick-study Layman is splendid as Juror Nine, the one who assertively stands up to the bullying going on around him by defending the position of Juror Eight, as well underlining the point of the play with “It isn’t easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others.”
“Twelve Angry Men,” through April 8. George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. For tickets ($26.50-$63.50) call 732-246-7717.