- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

Do you watch all three “Law & Order” series and then settle in for marathons with the never-ending loop of reruns on cable? Is “Court TV” your TV? If so, you can now also feed your justice jones live at the Kennedy Center, where a taut and involving production of “Twelve Angry Men” is currently holding audiences in thrall.

Reginald Rose’s teleplay has been around since 1954, when it debuted on the CBS drama “Studio One.” “Twelve Angry Men” was made into a movie in 1957, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda as the empathetic and questioning juror, and then re-made in 1997 by the Showtime network, with a racially diverse cast and highlighting the issue of “reasonable doubt” raised by the O.J. Simpson trial.

You gain a certain visceral and voyeuristic frisson seeing “Twelve Angry Men” on the stage, as director Scott Ellis captures the same claustrophobic feel as Mr. Lumet’s film, which is mainly confined to the jury room. Allen Moyer’s set will seem depressingly familiar to anyone who’s sat on a jury — a dingy, government-issue space with dusty venetian blinds, a long wooden table and a motley assortment of chairs.

It is a hot summer’s day, and the jurors file into the stifling room after receiving instructions from an unseen judge (the voice of Robert Prosky). A young life hangs in the balance — a teenage boy (from an unidentified ethnic group) is accused of stabbing to death his abusive father.

At first, the men act as though it is an open-and-shut case. Before the initial vote taken by the jury foreman (George Wendt), jurors make plans — to attend a baseball game or take an earlier train. The kid’s a bad egg from a bad neighborhood, it’s a done deal, let’s go home.

The lone vote of “not guilty” comes from Juror Eight (Richard Thomas), who feels the weight of deciding whether a fellow human being lives or dies and insists on some deliberation. Naturally, the other men, who just wanted to do their civic duty and call it a day, do not greet Juror Eight’s suggestion with much enthusiasm.

Their minds are made up — or are they?

As Juror Eight sifts through the testimony and exhibits, questions arise.

“Twelve Angry Men” is a fascinating character study of how a dozen average Joes approach a life-and-death decision. The play presents a microcosm of ordinary human behavior — there’s the hotheaded and bullying father (Randle Mell), the loudmouthed palooka (Mark Morettini), the peppy people-pleaser (T. Scott Cunningham), the placater (Todd Cerveris), the elderly man who refuses to be brushed aside (Alan Mandell), the working stiff (Charles Borland), the upright businessman (Jeffrey Hayenga), the proud immigrant (David Lively) and the touchy former hood (Jim Saltouros).

You never learn the real names of the jurors — the better to project your own biases onto the characters. When the deliberations get rough, it starts getting personal, as the jurors savagely turn on each other. Juror Ten (Julian Gamble) launches into a racist rant so vicious and ignorant it takes your breath away. The men take swipes at each other’s manners and upbringing to the point where the trial begins to be about them, rather than the accused.

The production’s excellent ensemble works like a symphony of rage — each voice distinct in its fury, but blending seamlessly into the whole. Mr. Mell is exceptional as the volcanic father, the pent-up rage and frustration seeping like bile from every pore. Mr. Mandell surprises as the unexpectedly strong and perceptive Juror Nine, and Mr. Cunningham nails the perky opportunism of a born ad-man as Juror Twelve.

Mr. Thomas exudes compassion and decency as the steadily inquisitive Juror Eight, chipping away at the prosecution’s case, planting the seed of “reasonable doubt” in the other juror’s minds, one by one.

It is remarkable how much intelligence and authority “Twelve Angry Men” still radiates after all these years of courtroom dramas on the tube and movie screen.

This is one stint of jury duty you won’t want to wriggle out of.

***

WHAT: “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose

WHERE: Eisenhower Theatre, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 22.

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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