Chad Kimball and Guy Burnet
in Murder in the First
(© Carol Rosegg)
Chad Kimball and Guy Burnet
in Murder in the First
(© Carol Rosegg)
Dan Gordon's Murder in the First, now at 59E59 Theaters, is a 1941-set courtroom drama that concerns the trial of William "Willie" Moore (Chad Kimball), on trial for slaying a fellow Alcatraz inmate.

While the territory is somewhat familiar, director Michael Parva's production is not just an intensely exciting theatrical experience, but one that has all the heated drama -- and melodrama -- of an irresistible John Grisham novel.

The story -- which is based on an actual event that ultimately led to the closing of the famed California prison -- focuses largely on inexperienced but determined 27-year-old attorney Henry Davidson (Guy Burnet), who decides on a radical -- and broadly disapproved -- strategy for sparing Moore the gas chamber.

The young lawyer opts to put Alcatraz and its officials on trial, maintaining it was Moore's inhumane three-year-and-two-month solitary confinement stay -- following a failed escape attempt -- that turned him into the madman who almost immediately after being released killed another inmate (with a spoon!)

Waging his seemingly impossible legal battle, Davidson has -- as all works of this sort worth their salt have -- everything against him. His romantic bond with colleague Mary McCasslin (Larisa Polonsky), becomes shaky; his chilly corporate-lawyer brother Byron (John Stanisci) tries to undermine him; and goons sent by prison officials leave him black-and-blue. Even the incarcerated Moore -- fearing any change from a death penalty sentence would have him back in his feared Alcatraz -- insists that Davidson back down.

The desired result -- familiar to anyone who has seen the film of the same name (or read any Grisham novel) comes to pass -- but only after any number of jazzy developments.

Among them, Davidson and Moore become so chummy that the former even brings a hooker (Anthoula Katsimatides) into the latter's cell for what turns into a graphic but unsatisfying sexual encounter. To foster sympathetic national attention for Moore, Davidson also makes a cynical pact with Walter Winchell-like radio columnist Houlihan (Joseph Adams).

Kimball, making a breakout transformation from musical leading man to dramatic actor, is first seen naked in fetal position and subsequently never lets up on Moore's nervous-wreck behavior, while Burnet unceasingly pushes Davidson's certainty about his unusual tactic.

The rest of the large cast, including Polonsky and Thomas Ryan as Judge Clawson, adds authenticity to the proceedings. So do the courtroom, prison cell, and DA's digs Mark Nayden has designed and the mournful music Quentin Chiappetta slips in.