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`Twelve Angry Men,' jangling in the jury room

March 31, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

Anyone who has served on a jury in a criminal case anywhere in America is likely to have heard at least one juror say at the beginning of deliberations, "Is this going to be like 'Twelve Angry Men'?" -- a testament to the indelible mark left by Reginald Rose's 1954 teleplay that was turned into a movie and then a stage play.

The admirable Roundabout Theatre Company in New York mounted a successful revival in 2004 and a national tour, headlined by Richard Thomas and George Wendt, has reached the Ahmanson Theatre. It proves that the play can still crackle and pop with uplifting melodrama as it reveals the virtues of democracy but also the courage required in a democracy to oppose the herd.

Looking back on the Ahmanson's season, "Twelve Angry Men" can be seen as an ancestor to John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," because it is precisely the tentative doubt of one man, Juror Eight, played by Thomas, that challenges the easy assumptions of 11 others who are ready at the outset to convict a 16-year-old boy in the stabbing death of his abusive father, the penalty being the electric chair.

Rose took a sampling of 1950s urban males (a house painter, a salesman, a stockbroker, an ad man, a garage owner) and locked them in an airless and sweaty room where they reckon with the ultimate fate of a stranger and, when complications ensue, with each other.

The quick characterizations are models of economical writing, and in no time the author has assembled before us a group of average guys distinguished by selfishness, racism, ignorance and delusion (or "Ain't that America?" as John Mellencamp might say).

But this snapshot of the postwar nation also includes Juror Eight, an architect, played in the 1957 movie by Henry Fonda and here by the former John Boy Walton. The author has placed our hopes in his capable hands.

Director Scott Ellis, who also directed the New York production (with a completely different cast), has fixed in amber the look and feel of the 1950s on view in the high-ceilinged jury room where the fan on the wall still doesn't work and windows are hard to open. The jurors enter through the frosted glass upstage door, one by one, led by Wendt, the Falstaffian "Cheers" barstool fixture who seems even larger in the flesh and receives the obligatory TV star round of applause. The 12 angry men wear coats and ties and suspenders and hang their hats on the wall. They smoke and dab their perspiring foreheads with white handkerchiefs. We are in a different time and place.

But not entirely. When ethnic slurs start to be hurled against the unseen accused, presumably a Puerto Rican ("these people are animals," "they're breeding us out of existence"), a familiar bigotry sours the air. Nothing seems dated when the louts among them want to wrap up the proceedings quickly so they can go on to ballgames or play bridge or check the closing prices on the stock exchange.

Even knowing how the story ends, Rose's old-fashioned dramaturgy still grips us as we watch Juror Eight chip away at the false certainties of his 11 compatriots and stand up to their rancorous denunciations as he persists in seeking traces of reasonable doubt.

In effect, the case is tried again in the jury room, with Juror Eight raising questions about witnesses and evidence that the boy's court-appointed attorney either overlooked or never bothered to entertain.

In the classic film, Fonda achieved maximum effect by underplaying the heroic role so that the force of the character built slowly and emerged in surprising small bursts of reason and intelligence. Thomas appears to have made an altogether different choice, and I regret to say it suffers by comparison. He shouts and projects Juror Eight's indignation instead of parsing it and moves too quickly around the stage, at odds with the character's measured emotions.

He is impassioned to be sure and connects with the audience on a level of obvious virtue and simple outrage, but he lacks the nuance that would give this otherwise fine production even more resonance.

It is still a crowd-pleaser, offering a series of timeless retorts during various arguments that humble the boors and blowhards on this increasingly fractious jury and ultimately sway their opinions.

Wendt doesn't get to do much as the reluctant foreman, but what he does is workmanlike. Alan Mandell, familiar to Los Angeles audiences for his good work in so many plays, is wonderful as the brave and stubborn old man in a rumpled linen suit who becomes Juror Eight's first ally. Mark Morettini is consistently amusing as the truculent baseball fan, and both Julian Gamble and Randle Mell are excellent as two of the gruffest and most obnoxious holdouts.


`Twelve Angry Men'

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays and 2 p.m. May 3

Ends: 2 p.m. May 6

Price: $20 to $80

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Patrick New...Guard

George Wendt...Juror One

Todd Cerveris...Juror Two

Randle Mell...Juror Three

Jeffrey Hayenga...Juror Four

Jim Saltouros...Juror Five

Charles Borland...Juror Six

Mark Morettini...Juror Seven

Richard Thomas...Juror Eight

Alan Mandell...Juror Nine

Julian Gamble...Juror Ten

David Lively...Juror Eleven

T. Scott Cunningham...Juror Twelve

By Reginald Rose. Directed by Scott Ellis. Set by Allen Moyer. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lighting by Paul Palazzo. Sound by Brian Ronan. Original compositions by John Gromada. Production stage manager Michael McEowen.

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