BWW Reviews: TWELVE ANGRY MEN: Warhorse and Civics Lesson at DCT
Having both argued to juries and served on a jury, I jumped at the chance to check out Dundalk Community Theatre's revival of Twelve Angry Men, which, as is widely known, is all about a jury. This show was originally embodied as a television play in 1954, made into an all-star movie in 1957, and first staged on Broadway in 2004. Time, it becomes apparent, has not been entirely kind to this warhorse, however.
The agedness problem starts with the dramatis personae and title, the fact that the jury is twelve angry men - no women - which would be statistically unlikely in more recent years, but went without much notice, presumably, in 1954. Even so, we know that at least by the late 1940s women had been permitted but not required to serve on juries in New York, where the play is set. So there was something slightly musty about the demographics even then. For various reasons, this production of the play is resituated in 1981, which is already after the time when juries were gender-integrated. So an all-male jury feels anachronistic, and not in a good way.
There is a dramatic simplicity to the conflict which also harks back to another time. The jury is there to decide whether to convict a young man of murder, and the question facing the jury is whether there exists a reasonable doubt. The suspense in the play is not over whether or not such doubt exists, but over whether the jury will recognize the right answer to the reasonable doubt question. We in the audience know what the right answer is because all of the good arguments, from beginning to end, are on one side of the debate, and the other side can do nothing but hearken to prejudices and blind emotion. And when the prejudices are articulated (the defendant is Hispanic and poor), they are of a sort which would never be shared aloud today, being quite politically incorrect. Even in 1981, there would have been too much self-censorship for such ugly sentiments to have been voiced in a room with eleven somewhat diverse strangers.
A modern playwright, by contrast, would always give some good arguments to the wrong side. Error and evil must have some good arguments to be plausible and seductive. Shakespeare and Shaw had known this earlier, and later on so did every writer who bangs out scripts for Law and Order. But in square mid-20th Century America, the lesson somehow went largely forgotten for a while. (I blame the agitprop-soaked Marxists who dominated our stage, particularly in the theater of ideas arena, at the time.) I think the moment the dramatic lesson got relearned was when A Man for All Seasons became a hit. It was a good thing for American drama when our writers rediscovered the principle, a bad thing for Twelve Angry Men that it had been forgotten when Rose was writing it.
All that said, there is always a reason a warhorse gets to become a warhorse. Here, the fun stems from some reversals, a couple of sucker-punches to the expectations of both the characters and the audience, and the ebb and flow of the alliances and enmities around the jury-table. There are five logical set-pieces as well, each devoted to one evidentiary question. For each, further discussion reveals surprising aspects. These traits explain why the play continues to draw audiences the world over, for all the old-fashioned drawbacks.
Director Tom Wyatt moves the action along briskly. He has made interesting choices with his cast. The two biggest roles, Juror No. 3, the loudmouth proponent of a guilty verdict, and Juror No. 8, the voice of reasonable doubt, are filled by John W. Ford and Roger Schulman, respectively. Both big men, neither looks "actorly" in either face or physique. (The movie, for comparison, had Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda in those roles.) It is counterintuitive that one looks for a studied actorly expressiveness in a show about twelve people randomly picked off the street, but one does, and it takes a while to get used to its absence. Moreover, it would appear that liberties have been taken with the script that change what we know about the characters in various ways, forcing those in the audience who have some familiarity with earlier versions of the work to rethink what kind of people these all are.
The play has to be set in New York, because the "El," the elevated subway train line, which exists in few other places (and less and less in New York), has great evidentiary importance. And New York was the quintessentially American city, particularly in 1954, so this play about a great American institution, the U.S. jury, would seem natural for it. But, quintessentially American or not, New York is not everywhere - not even anywhere else; people talk differently, view themselves differently, interact differently, dress differently there, and they always have. Wyatt's cast looks and sounds like a group of Baltimoreans. I found it impossible to suspend my disbelief that these were people who could talk knowledgeably about the El. These men would have grown up drinking Natty Boh, not Rheingold.
So in the end, we are cast back on the drama itself. Time may have robbed it of some compelling force, and this cast may portray it rather than inhabit it, and the civics lesson aspects of it can cloy a little, but it still works well enough to keep the audience attentive. The surprises, even when you know they're coming, still draw gasps. And that is why it's worth an evening of your time. Catch it soon, as it's on a short run.
Twelve Angry Men, by Reginald Rose, directed by Tom Wyatt. Through March 6, at Dundalk Community Theatre, Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk, 7200 Sollers Point Road, Building K, Baltimore, MD 21222-4649. Tickets $22. Box Office: 443.840.ARTS or email email@example.com . Suitable for all ages.