When judging a play about judges judging other judges, one should probably begin with the evidence.
International City Theatre in Long Beach is producing "Judgment at Nuremberg" as a local premiere, but that bears some explanation, since the title is likely familiar to many. Abby Mann wrote this piece first for television in the late '50s, then saw it produced as a film with a star-studded cast, led by Spencer Tracy, in 1961. In 2001, Mann adapted it to the stage, and it was performed on Broadway.
Mann's writing certainly holds up. As a fictionalized account of one of the tribunals following World War II, it remains a great history lesson and an excellent primer on the fundamental moral and legal question of collective guilt. "Judgment at Nuremberg" derives from the trial of German judges who claimed they were simply carrying out the law of the land, and the play asks, in part: At what point does just doing one's job become a crime, when the job itself involves carrying out great injustices?
Mann won an Oscar for the screenplay, and deservedly so. It's hard to imagine a film like that being made today: It's not just serious, but also sober, a bit slow-moving, demanding. The stage adaptation is a straightforward transplantation; some material has been changed or edited, but it remains basically the same thoughtful, morally probative piece it has been since it was penned for live TV nearly half a century ago.
The ICT production, directed by Shashin Desai, is competent but not inspired, and it comes across as a bit dusty, despite the elegant simplicity of its bare stage. The set has the necessary stations for the courtroom drama -- a place for judge, defendants and lawyers -- but nothing else. The required table or chairs are brought on and off when needed for scenes that take place outside the courtroom.
Barry Lynch as Judge Dan Haywood presides over the tribunal and represents the clear moral center of the play, struggling with both brain and heart to come to the right conclusion. But like others in the large ensemble cast, Lynch doesn't quite seem to be inhabiting the role fully, but wearing it on the outside.
The most interesting roles are the German ones. Dyan Kane portrays Margarete Bertholt, the aristocratic wife of a now-executed Nazi general, as if she were trying too hard to channel the coolness of Marlene Dietrich, who played the part in the film.
Maury Sterling stands out as Oscar Rolfe, the young defense counsel who believes himself to be defending the honor of Germany in the aftermath of acknowledged horrors committed by the Third Reich. Sterling is the only actor who really manages to make the legal arguments come alive.
Neil Larson is an imposing Ernst Janning, the key defendant in the case, a former minister of justice and leading legal thinker whose silence through much of the play is either total disdain for the proceedings or a feeling of deep guilt, a question resolved fully when he finally speaks up.
But herein lies perhaps the biggest problem. The cast and Desai too often confuse evoking emotion in the audience with the actors over-emoting. That may be the proper approach most of the time -- the loudest moments will usually be the most dramatic -- but in plays that are fundamentally about emotional denial, it's the small silences that should matter most, not the histrionics.
Ultimately, I found myself respecting this "Judgment at Nuremberg" much more than being moved by it.
'Judgment at Nuremberg'
Where: International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 10
Contact: (562) 436-4610
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes