"Twelve Angry Men" is getting a sound, even-handed production at the new Henry Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, but the news is the theater itself. It has been a movie house since the 1940s (last known as the Pix), but if ever a theater was made for the sound of the living actor's voice, this is it. And do we need it.
Opened in 1926 as the Carter DeHaven Music Box, it's a traditional Broadway-style proscenium house, built just a little smaller than Broadway size: only 863 seats. Some seats are better than others. For instance in the first row of the balcony, the guard rail cuts off part of the view. But most seats offer a full sense of the actor's physical presence and a clear-to-the-lastsyllable account of his lines.
Yet the stage has size and the auditorium has depth. A whisper will carry here, but so will a yell, as Robert Lewis' company demonstrated Tuesday night, wrangling in their jury room. Fonda would have liked this theater. It doesn't get in the actor's way.
As for decor, the Music Box's neo-Spanish interior has been so successfully toned down that the effect tends to be drab, as in that overcareful powder-gray lobby. No problem. The actor-audience relationship is right, and that's what counts. The Nederlander Organization has given us a house for the civilized spoken play, and if the Shuberts will only do the same, we'll be in business.
As for Tuesday night's play, "Twelve Angry Men," it is one that you have seen before even if, like me, you have never seen it. This doesn't rule out enjoyment in seeing it again, any more than when watching the late movie.
In fact, this is the late movie (UA, 1957) brought to the stage. Ken Kercheval plays the Fonda role here: the decent, clear-thinking guy who isn't going to let the rest of the jury pressure him into sending some minority kid to the chair, no matter how much they want to go to the ball game.
If you know anything about 1950s television (Reginald Rose's script started out on Studio One), you know how it's going to come out. Our hero will keep to his smiling, reasonable position until even the worst bigot in the room (Vic Tayback here, with John Randolph a close second) cries uncle.
Kercheval is more serene than Fonda, without the underlay of self-dissatisfaction that kept Fonda from being bland even in an archetypal role. Kercheval does have the character's stubbornness, his natural generosity (as when he comes back for Tayback at the end of the play) and a certain air of being the cat who swallowed the cream.
That allows a perverse sympathy for the bad guys, who maybe didn't have his advantages. Tayback (who replaced the ailing Jack Klugman at the last minute) is especially solid here, a sorehead with a certain dignity.
Under Lewis' direction, everybody seems to know where his character lives, how much money he made last year and what he had for breakfast. There are the blue-collar guys and the white-collar guys. There's the professor (David Opatoshu); the somewhat scattered fellow who works for an ad agency (Bill Washington); the guy who looks as if he makes big money on Wall Street (Peter Mark Richman); the old geezer with the heart problem (Whit Bissell.)
Stereotypes, to an extent, but the company individualizes them nicely, with particular delicacy from Opatoshu and Richman, each playing a man of real intelligence, the first lyrical, the second steely.
More important, the company plays together well, listening hard to each other (or pointedly ignoring each other, if that's the scene) and sensitive to each other's physical presence. (Particularly Jack Riley, who feels very jumpy having to sit next to the volatile Tayback--the death seat.)
It feels like 12 people in a real room. Unfortunately it doesn't always look like a real room, though the table is solid and the windows go up and down. Set designer Robert Fletcher and light designer Martin Aronstein make the room a raft adrift on a sea of abstract darkness. We don't feel the closed-in atmosphere of a jury room; we don't believe the mopped brows.
On balance, however, it's a reasonable rendering of a play that still has something to say about the need for reason in a jangled world. Perhaps the Plumstead Theatre Society will take more risks in its second venture at the Fonda--or perhaps it will offer a straight-out comedy. It's a theater that can live up to any occasion.
'TWELVE ANGRY MEN' Reginald Rose's play, presented by the Plumstead Theatre Society at the Henry Fonda Theatre. Director Robert Lewis. Producers Martha Scott, Sander Jacobs, Richard Sheehan. Scenic and costume design Robert Fletcher. Lighting Martin Aronstein. Production stage manager Carleton Scott Alsop. Sound design Jon Gottlieb. Production coordinator Kimothy Cruse. Casting consultant David Graham. With Kenneth Kimmins, Jack Riley, Vic Tayback, Peter Mark Richman, Adam Arkin, Robert Alan-Browne, Howard Hesseman, Ken Kercheval, Whit Bissell, John Randolph, David Opatoshu, Bill Washington, Peter Virgo, Jack Manning. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m.. Tickets $19.50-$28.50. 6126 Hollywood Blvd. 410-1062.