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ACR's Sincere Adaptation of 'Anatomy' Offers Lesson

Theater review: Murder-trial novel comes to the stage with too many movie conventions.


MISSION VIEJO — Though "Anatomy of a Murder" has no classic status in the American theater, it does have a devoted following at American Classic Repertory.

ACR has mounted a sincere amateur stage production adapted by Elihu Winer from Robert Traver's murder-trial novel of the same name.

Winer, the playbill notes, "chose to adapt [the novel] so that others could enjoy the courtroom strategy 'live.' " Presumably, his intent is different from the 1959 Oscar-nominated screen version of "Anatomy of a Murder." The movie, which starred Jimmy Stewart and, in his first major Hollywood role, George C. Scott, essentially was a well-drawn, if overly drawn-out, character study.

The story remains the same here, although the gender and temperament of some of the key characters have been changed. For example, the chief prosecutor is now a woman instead of a man; the defense attorney's sidekick is a wise old codger who takes an occasional drink, instead of an over-the-hill alcoholic with a brilliant legal mind.

"Anatomy of a Murder" unfolds in a law office during the first act and in a courtroom during the second. An Army officer has been charged with murdering his wife's rapist, a gun-crazy saloon owner whose reputation for macho nastiness is well-established. The officer has admitted the killing--there is no dispute about that--but has pleaded not guilty with an explanation: insanity.

Unfortunately, Winer's adaptation leaves much to be desired. For one thing, he apes the rhythms of cinematic technique--that is, he writes short, quick scenes inimical to the requirements of theater in general and to ACR's technical resources in particular.

His scenes come off like a series of blackouts--choppy, awkward, undeveloped. It's a common error for playwrights who either are habituated to movies or who think in strictly visual terms, and it inevitably results in static storytelling for the stage.

Where movies require speed--scenes and dialogue can be measured in nanoseconds--the opposite is true of theater. Movies can create the illusion of smooth forward motion as well as narrative expansion through fluid editing. Theater must rely far more on the "build" of each scene, on slower rhythms, fewer locations, perhaps even fewer characters. "Anatomy of a Murder" has 17 or so speaking roles, many of them quirky trial witnesses who come and go with the regularity of motorists gassing up at the pump.

Led by Lee Clark, who almost has to carry the entire production as the defense attorney, the teeming cast attempts to sketch in its roles in quick strokes and with varying degrees of success. But there is no single standout performance and, on the whole, far too much mugging. It generates an atmosphere of unreality from which the production never escapes.

"Anatomy of a Murder," American Classic Repertory, 23891 Via Fabricante, Suite No. 612, Mission Viejo. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Also, July 6 at 2 p.m. Ends July 13. $6-$11. (714) 542-1306). Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Joe Abrams: Parnell McCarthy

Lee Clark: Paul Biegler

Colin Johnson: Lt. Frederic Manion

Lisa Records: Laura Manion

Jeff Cullen: Paquette

Jeff Johnson: Mitch Lodwick

Tracy Merrifield: Claudette Dancer

Paulette Cabral: Gloria Gleason

Susan Kane: Judge Weaver

Brady Nelson: Bailiff

John D. Suttle: Dr. Homer Raschid

Cynthia Givens: Wilma Burke/Mrs. Lemon

Randy Monte: Det. Sgt. Juilan Durgo

Barbara Berndt: Dr. Harriett Gregory

Jill Jones: Dr. Martha Smith

ACR Classic Members: Jury Foreman

An American Classic Repertory production of a play adapted by Elihu Winer from a novel by Robert Traver. Director: Lee Clark.. Producer: Joann Urban Clark. Lights/sound: Brady Nelson. Running crew: Lauren and Lacey Dorow.

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