In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I sing the praises of a show in Sarasota, Florida, Asolo Rep’s revival of Twelve Angry Men. Here’s an excerpt.
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Great character actors make the world of theater go round. Florida’s Asolo Repertory Theatre is proving the point with its exceptional revival of “Twelve Angry Men.” Reginald Rose’s popular jury-room drama is better known as a movie than a play–it was originally written for a CBS telecast in 1954, then filmed in 1957, and only made it to Broadway a half-century later–and the film version starred Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, two of Hollywood’s best-known faces. In most of its incarnations, though, “Twelve Angry Men” has served as a vehicle for unfamous performers who look and sound (as Jack Webb said of the character actors whom he cast in “Dragnet”) “as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” That’s what Asolo Rep is giving us, and the results are truly inspiring.
Mr. Rose’s 1964 stage version of his original “Studio One” teleplay is an astonishingly well-made piece of work. The mechanism that propels the stage action, which is played out in real time, couldn’t be simpler–one juror gradually persuades his 11 colleagues not to send a slum kid to the electric chair–but often the simplest devices are the best ones…
The script also contains more than its share of high-minded heavy-handedness, however, and there are more than a few moments when you can all but see “APPLAUD” and “BOO” signs flashing over the proscenium. Not only is the never-seen slum kid who’s been accused of killing his father a member of an (unspecified) minority group who Never Had a Chance, but Juror No. 10 (played here by Douglas Jones) is an eye-rollingly self-evident bigot who telegraphs his bad-guy status right at the top of the play by making a clanking reference to “those people.” As for Juror No. 8 (Jud Williford), the lone holdout, he’s so damn noble that Fonda actually wore a white suit when he played the part in Sidney Lumet’s film.
But since I last saw “Twelve Angry Men” in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s excellent 2004 Broadway premiere, I’ve had two eye-opening experiences: I saw a kinescope of the original live-TV version, which was performed much more straightforwardly than Lumet’s film, and I served as the foreman for a New York jury. No, I didn’t wear a white suit, nor was I especially noble, but I did get to see how seriously my fellow jurors took what we were doing, and I realized in the process was that “Twelve Angry Men” is for the most part surprisingly true to life in its portrayal of what happens in a jury room. So is Asolo Rep’s production, which has been staged with bracing clarity by Frank Galati, a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble….
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Read the whole thing here.