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Kevin Geer, Philip Bosco, Michael Mastro, Adam Trese,
John Pankow, Peter Friedman, and Larry Bryggman
in Twelve Angry Men
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, a juror bred to Eastern elitist views about moral complexity argues with men of more stubbornly black-and-white mentalities for their vote. This is perhaps the only week in the life of a work that began as an attention-grabbing 1954 jury-room teleplay that it will strike observers as a metaphor for the Kerry-Bush election -- and the outcome of the play holds out more hope for the Kerry camp, which looks to be grasping at whatever promising signs it can.

Of course, subtly championing a 2004 presidential candidate was not Rose's intention when he wrote the piece for CBS's Studio One. A man whose career included developing the award-winning series The Defenders, Rose crafted this one in the middle of Dwight D. Eisenhower's first administration. He was writing about the outward ordinariness of good, as opposed to Hannah Arendt's subsequent take on the Adolf Eichmann trial as a look at the banality of evil. As such, the teleplay -- later a 1957 film inevitably starring Henry Fonda, then a 1964 stage play -- is an artifact from the man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit period.

Rose originally intended his drama to provide 60 minutes of television suspense; he imagined a dozen white men from different backgrounds deliberating over the fate of an 18-year-old boy accused of killing his father in a domestic conflict. Concerned as the telewriter was with the issue of courtroom justice in the hands of everyday citizens, he wasn't above manipulating his story for utmost dramatic effect. He created a situation where the initial guilty/innocent vote is 11-1 and then manipulated a reversal within a scant TV hour by methodically calling into question the supposedly incriminating evidence.

Rose, who died two years ago, altered certain details in subsequent versions. Now the boy charged with snuffing Dad is 16 and the play runs closer to 90 minutes. Still, no jury ever covered this much ground in so little time with so much theatrical fireworks. Looked at with a jaundiced eye, Twelve Angry Men is a clever piece of stagecraft that shows its age in that few if any juries in an American court today would be all-male and all-white. Nor would the race of the boy on trial be discussed, as it is here, yet never specified -- hinted at only with the use of the words "they" and "them."

But there's no need to look at Twelve Angry Men with a jaundiced eye when its potential to delight and provoke remains strong. There's even less need to question the melodrama's effectiveness when the Roundabout Theatre Company team gives it a stellar production -- the result of many people working at their best but particularly director Scott Ellis, who's whipped the show into reverberant shape. Not always reliable for more than an adequate look at what he tackles, Ellis keeps the conflicts between these various but volatile men ebbing and flowing. Without evidence of strain, he creates indelible stage pictures; he has located Rose's carefully modulating rhythms and orchestrated them beautifully.

Adam Trese, Boyd Gaines, Kevin Geer, Larry Bryggman,
and Philip Bosco in Twelve Angry Men
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Needless to say, he wouldn't have been able to do as well as he has were the actors not absolutely right. (Casting directors Jim Carnahan and Mele Nagler deserve kudos as well.) If nothing else, the Twelve Angry Men cast is a testament to the depth of New York character acting and to the quality of ensemble playing. Boyd Gaines, as the man voting innocent in the first tally because he has reasonable doubts, wears intelligent uncertainty on his face just as he probably wears a Brooks Brothers label inside his jacket. Philip Bosco as a juror who sees his rebellious son in the accused boy is a crumbling mountain of obduracy. His intensity is matched by Peter Friedman, the group's barrel-chested bigot. Tom Aldredge, deft in the Roundabout's Twentieth Century last season, gives a totally different picture of advancing age here. Larry Bryggman, virtually unrecognizable, plays with conviction a German-born citizen who's furiously protective of the rights he cherishes.

James Rebhorn is a broker holding out for conviction, and his slow acknowledgment that he might be wrong has as many gradations as a dimming light. Mark Blum, one of the city's best man-on-the-street representatives, does it again as the harried foreman. Kevin Geer handles perhaps the biggest challenge, the timid juror eventually finding his voice in the waxing and waning din. Robert Clohessy as a guy-next-door type with a big heart and John Pankow as a guy-next-door type with a smaller heart both click. Michael Mastro, playing a fellow with a background similar to the defendant's, does bruised strength well. Adam Trese is in no way obvious as a standard-issue Madison Avenue sloganeer. Matt Osian is fine as a guard. (Robert Prosky's voice is heard early on through a door as the judge advising the jurors on their obligations.)

Twelve Angry Men is set on a conventionally and symbolically hot, sticky summer day. Set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer Michael Krass, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Ronan, and composer John Gromada (using a sax generously) do everything they can to make the day as hot and sticky as it can possibly be. They succeed with flying colors, as does Scott Ellis's perfect production of Reginald Rose's middlebrow entertainment. For audience members who've wondered over the years what the hit-or-miss Roundabout is capable of doing extremely well, here is an example.

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