TWELVE ANGRY MEN Theater Review
The jury is not out and the verdict is in: Laguna Playhouse’s production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men is “guilty” as charged of being an excellent, tautly written, directed and acted drama. Suggested by Rose’s own stint serving on a jury, Twelve goes behind the scenes to watch the jury deliberations of a dozen men over what appears to be an open and shut homicide case in New Yawk City. They are in a rush to leave the sweltering jury room - as in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, also about racial injustice, it is literally the hottest day of the year - and the weary men want to leave the courthouse, go home, to a Dodger game (in Brooklyn, not Chavez Ravine - this is a 1950s period piece), etc.
But with the death sentence hanging over the teenaged defendant - a minority (unspecified which ethnic group he belongs to in this production) - Juror # 8 (Seamus Dever) proves to be the lone holdout. An architect, the sole dissenting vote on the first ballot, steps up and bravely holds forth in this gripping one-acter, as he strives to sway the other mostly eager-to-leave 11 jurors to consider that there may be reasonable doubt. Will he prevail?
Throughout the around 90 minute play, the jurors’ personal prejudices come to the fore - racism; bias against immigrants; father-son animus; a simple-minded love of baseball (John Massey’s droll Juror #7); and more. All this causes a majority of the jurors to have a presumption of guilt - instead of innocence.
Like Henry Fonda in the classic 1957 film adaptation of what had originally been Rose’s Emmy Award winning teleplay on Studio One, Dever conveys Juror #8’s essential decency as he forces mob justice to stand down and back down. Another standout in the superb cast is Richard Burgi, who portrayed the same enraged Juror #3 Lee J. Cobb had played opposite Fonda in the big screen version.
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With its theme of guilt by innuendo and suspicion, the 1950s-set Twelve Angry Men can be viewed as a veiled critique of the then-prevailing Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthyism, which permeated America with an uneasy, widespread climate of distrust, paranoia and fear. If this reviewer remembers correctly, in the 1957 movie version the murder suspect is Hispanic, and as such this evergreen drama takes on renewed meaning for the Trump era, as Latinos and other ethnic groups are vilified and increasingly coming under attack.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford and costume designer Kate Bergh expertly transport us back in time to the 1950s - even if this story remains disturbingly fresh. Tightly directed by Michael Matthews, Twelve is still a perfect dramatization of democracy, crackling with tension, relieved by occasional humor. Entertainment at its best - Laguna Playhouse’s high octane production keeps your butt on the edge of your seat and your mind fully engaged, in high gear. Beyond a reasonable doubt, if ever a drama deserved to be held over, it’s this one.
Twelve Angry Men is playing Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., plus 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. through Oct. 22, at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949)497-2787; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-organizer of the Oct. 27 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist (see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute). Rampell is co-presenting V.I. Pudovkin’s documentary The End of St. Petersburg on Sunday, 4:00 p.m., Oct. 29, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: email@example.com.