Courtroom dramas have been a staple of theater since...well, at least since Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. This particular genre is a natural for the stage because it comes fully packed with drama already built in. What's more basic than guilt or innocence? Fact or fiction? Truth or consequences? Conflict smacks us in the face at a trial. Classic plays or book adaptations (Inherit the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Witness for the Prosecution, Judgment at Nuremberg, A Few Good Men) hinge on such simple, elemental principles. Simple, though, is not black and white.
Reginald Rose's Emmy-winning 1954 teleplay 12 Angry Men (adapted into a successful movie in 1958, the stage version didn't reach Broadway until 2004) turns the courtroom drama on its head by staging all the action in the jury room. The heated deliberations of these 12 average men deciding the fate of a 16-year-old from the slums of New York accused of murdering his father packs as much punch as any trial. This is old-fashioned playmaking of the well-made kind. A.D. Players' flawless production, abetted by a high-octane ensemble, keeps Rose's melodramatic chestnut spinning with fresh relevance and sure-fire emotion.
On the hottest day in July, 12 men enter the shabby jury room after receiving instructions from the offstage judge. The charge is murder in the 1st degree, which carries a mandatory death sentence. One witness has testified seeing the boy flee the apartment immediately after hearing an intense struggle and the sound of the father's body falling to the floor. A woman across the way has actually seen the murder from her bedroom window and identified the boy, although a subway was passing at the time. Most of the men see their deliberations as perfunctory, obviously an open and shut case.
Foreman and Juror #1 (Mark Roberts) attempts to keep the argumentative men on track. Juror #2 (Ted Doolittle) is a milktoast without opinions. Gruff Juror #3 (Rutherford Cravens) is haunted by his troubled relations with his own son. Snobby stockbroker Juror #4 (Philip Lehl) is adamant that the facts speak for themselves. Young Juror #5 (Braden Hunt) grew up in the slums like the defendant, and his knowledge of switchblades is one of many reversals that Rose delights in throwing at us. Burly working-class Juror #6 (Jeff McMorrough) is content to follow the advice of the others, but his bulk belies a moral fiber that's used for comic effect. Wise-cracking Juror #7 (Marty Blair) has baseball tickets and wants to wrap this up as soon as possible. Juror #8 (Kevin Dean), quiet and contemplative at the beginning, will turn into the play's moral compass. Frail and ashen Juror #9 (Marion Arthur Kirby) will later surprise his younger colleagues with his wily powers of observation. Loudmouth bigot Juror #10 (Craig Griffin) grumbles incessantly about “them” and “those types,” having already made up his mind about the boy's guilt, and will not waver. Watchmaker Juror #11 (Ric Hodgin) is a former German immigrant, but proud American citizen. Ad man Juror #12 (Jason Bergstrom) is slick and superficial, following whichever way the wind blows. The courthouse guard is played by Brandon Fain.
After settling in amid small talk so we know where these guys are coming from, the men take a vote. Quick and easy, most of them assume, we're be outta here in five minutes. But when it's tallied, there's a lone dissent. Juror #8 has voted Not Guilty. The eleven are stunned. The decision must be unanimous, and Men is off and running, not stopping or faltering until final blackout.
Juror #8 confesses that he doesn't know if the boy's guilty or not, but he has “reasonable doubt,” which impels him to ask questions and “talk it out” with the vociferous dissenters. The boy's court-appointed attorney didn't seem interested in helping the boy. What about that witness with the limp? Could he possibly get down the hall quick enough to see anyone run by? Do you really stab someone overhand with a switchblade? And who could hear anyone scream or identity a particular voice with that deafening roar from the passing elevated train? Prodded by #8, in spite of intractable prejudices and personal motives, the jurors grudgingly relive the trial and slowly begin to unwind the knotty testimony. Will these unyielding average men, a diverse cross section, do the right thing? The weight of responsibility lies heavy on some of them, but is a distracting annoyance to the rest.
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Scene designer Mark A. Lewis and costumer Patty Tuel Bailey drape Men in fragrant Belasco realism. The '50s jury room walls are smudged, the radiators rusty, the linoleum floor scuffed. The wash basin of the stage-left bathroom gushes real water, while the revolving towel dispenser, in a nifty little touch, doesn't turn so that each person must find his own clean spot to dry his hands. And the clothes are equally telling: saddle shoes for young #5, crisp vested suits for #4 and #8, an ill-fitting coat for meek #2. This vision suits Rose's theatricality perfectly. Director Jennifer Dean keeps the action on smooth boil, letting it rise and fall naturally, until it startles us with an unforeseen outburst or some necessary comic relief. Under her watchful eye, everyone gets a chance to shine.
As Juror #8, Dean exudes moral rectitude without the smug. He questions, but without pomp. Rather, he shoftshoes into the play without us even realizing. When he takes center stage, he holds it firmly against a maelstrom from the other actors who have much more juicy roles than he. Doolittle is mousy with tiny chirps as #2; Griffin is all spittle and spite as the ugliest American; Cravens blusters in his blustery patented way as bully #3; Lehl is cool and haughty as a one percenter before there were one percenters; Hunt bristles whenever his underprivileged roots are attacked; McMorrough's physical presence is rock-ribbed as the epitome of the working man; Blair, chewing gum and tossing off jokes, is hail-fellow-well-met until he cracks; Kirby twinkles with delight as the wise old owl, and we twinkle along with him; Hodgin overlays #11 with innate dignity and righteousness; and Bergstrom oozes insincerity as a Madison Avenue hack. These dozen actors work marvelously together, sparring, jousting, getting on each other's nerves, almost coming to blows. They revel in the material, basking in their individual star turns.
Sure, the play's old-fashioned and a bit creaky, but these sterling actors (where else in Houston can you see 12 of the best performers on one stage at the same time?) burrow beneath Rose's stereotypes to reveal the play's bedrock message of compassion and fairness. Yes, it's earnest in a civics-class kind of way, but Men remains taut after all these years and very American in the best of ways. For all our foibles and naked zealotry, it says, our jurisprudence system is still the capstone, the beacon for all. Men is also jim-crack entertainment, an energetic bundle that's audience friendly and thoroughly engaging. A.D. Players sees to that. That genre is not particular to America, of course, it's just damn good theater anywhere.
12 Angry Men. Through September 27. A.D. Players, 2710 West Alabama. For information visit adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721.$40.