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No Doubt

Twelve Angry Men is headed for the canon, thanks to a subtle script and actors who know nuance.

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Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Twelve Angry Men; Illustration by Brian Stauffer

We must not in disheveled pursuit of the radically different neglect or minimize the achievements of the past. The commercial theater has yielded hits that, upon acquiring the patina of repeated exposure, attained the status of art. Think of the Kaufman and Hart comedies, which, polished through countless productions, became enshrined as literature. Such a fate may overtake Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, which began as a teleplay, was expanded into a movie, underwent several stage versions, and now takes flight at the American Airlines Theater as a classic in the making.

It tells of how a lone holdout at a murder trial, Juror 8, staunchly standing by his reasonable doubt in face of underwhelming evidence, confronts eleven other jurors who, convinced that a 16-year-old boy is guilty of killing his father, are ready to condemn him to what in 1954 was a mandatory death sentence. Slowly, without hectoring rhetoric or even firm belief in the boy’s innocence, he argues the case for further questioning; very gradually and in different ways, the others’ positions begin to change.

Though seemingly naturalistic, the play in some ways departs from reality. I do not refer to the improvements wrought in half a century—juries no longer all-white and all-male, death sentences no longer mandatory even in states that still allow them. Rather, I refer to certain lapses in logic or credibility that are, however, outweighed by the strong writing, with slight predictability not slackening the suspense, underlying faith in democratic procedure not neutralizing the frightful precariousness of its realization.

Rose manages to make the dozen jurors both universal, by refusing so much as to name them, and sharply individual with remarkably few but subtle strokes—by their vocabulary, by some idiosyncratic character trait, by their laconism or volubility. What in the hands of a lesser writer might court cliché here retains the pungency of the closely observed or meticulously overheard particular. Take, for example, “I mean, everybody’s heart is starting to bleed for this punk little kid like the president just declared it ‘Love Your Underprivileged Brother Week’ or something.” This precise blend of originality and banality aptly characterizes Juror 3.

Of course, for this to work, the mounting has to be as right as the Roundabout’s revival. On Allen Moyer’s letter-perfect jury-room set, which makes cunning lateral shifts to reveal the goings-on in the washroom, Scott Ellis, a director I have sometimes found uneven, delivers a stunning piece of staging. He has devised a kind of choreography whereby the jurors move around much more, and more dramatically, than real-life jurors would, yet keep each move believable. And I salute every single performance: Boyd Gaines’s Juror 8, conveying inner uncertainties not allowed to undermine the pursuit of reasoned inquiry; Tom Aldredge’s old Juror 9, his undimmed mind sturdily defying his enfeebled body; Philip Bosco’s most close-minded Juror 3, neither overdoing nor shortchanging his unlikability, and riveting in his final pathos; Kevin Geer’s tongue-tied Juror 2, unused to self-assertion, yet, when it counts, rising drolly to the occasion; Michael Mastro’s seeming simpleton Juror 5, endearingly revealing sound instincts; Larry Bryggman’s unerringly accented European immigrant (No. 11), meeting raucous challenge with dignified poise.

And close on their heels the Jury Foreman of Mark Blum, judiciously patient but not imperturbable; the Sixth Juror of Robert Clohessy, a tough guy but far from a brute; James Rebhorn’s Fourth Juror, methodical, buttoned-up but unsweaty in this hot room, coolly yet unimaginatively reasoning; John Pankow’s Seventh Juror, a loudmouth and baseball addict full of crudely funny remarks; Peter Friedman’s No. 10, working up vehemently spewed-out prejudices by well-judged increments; and twelfth, Adam Trese, glibly girded with ad-agency phrases, yet easily buffeted this way or that. A solid ensemble, unerringly costumed by Michael Krass and searchingly lighted by Paul Palazzo, in performances your memory won’t easily shake off.

How subtly Rose refuses to label the alleged killer as African-American, and the immigrant as Jewish, letting us fill in the blanks and, in the process, test our own possible prejudices, racial, religious, or xenophobic. How economically he strips off masks, as when seven quiet words from Juror 8 reveal Juror 3’s personal bias posturing as impersonal justice. In the final analysis, this superficially dated but fundamentally self-renewing play is more than a lesson in civics and shrewd analysis of a cross-section of psyches. It is a nudge toward our leaving the theater a bit better than we entered it.

Twelve Angry Men
At The American Airlines Theater. Opened October 28.

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