Twelve Angry Men is a serious, non-harmful play in a far better than non-harmful production. If this seems like faint praise, bear in mind that it speaks to the overall situation: The sum total here is way ahead of those occasions on which you have to dig to find something to praise in the middle of a general misery. Twelve Angry Men is no one’s idea of great drama, probably not even the Roundabout’s, but on its lower level it’s an honest, fair-minded piece of solid craftsmanship. It recounts its carefully contrived little story and supplies its little moral meaning openly, without any flimflam. And that moral meaning—I’m writing on the cusp of a fateful Election Day—happens to be an important one just now, about the purpose of democracy and the truth it holds for us. So maybe, in this context, Reginald Rose’s 50-year-old TV play is rather better than non-harmful. For the kind of Broadway theatergoer who hasn’t thought in decades about democratic principles—or perhaps about any sort of principles—it may even be actively helpful. Certainly there’s no shame in it. And then, too, there’s the acting.
Plays are written to be acted, and the Broadway-carpentry tradition from which Twelve Angry Men springs is one in which actors are expected to supply the nuances or personality quirks (their own or the characters’) that take the edge off the playwright’s schematism. This is a special skill, a subsection of the actor’s basic task, that calls for seasoned and knowing performers. Here, the Roundabout has been exceptionally generous, eschewing its usual policy of TV-names-at-all-costs in favor of real actors who know what they’re doing. From the minute the jury-room door opens and you glimpse the tired, defeated eyes of Mark Blum, as the wearily patient foreman who has to keep this barrel of snakes in order, you know that everything in Scott Ellis’s production is going to be all right. And it is—is in fact often a good deal better than all right, because Blum and his colleagues know how to build people out of the little bags of opinions and traits that Rose’s script assigns them. When Kevin Geer frets about his child at home with mumps, or Robert Clohessy yaks about painting apartments near the elevated tracks, you understand why, later, the man who yearns to get home will change his vote to delay the decision, and the easygoing guy will threaten to deck a fellow juror whose talk has gotten out of line. It isn’t Rose who creates that understanding, though his sense of what people are capable of certainly abets it: Less sensitive, less thorough actors might have made us feel that these changes of attitude were strictly pro forma, pieces of dramaturgic convenience to keep the suspense building. The challenge of acting, met so successfully by all 12 actors here, is to connect the dots, to make us believe that people think and do certain things because of who they are, that human personalities are not accidental or random constructions.
This is a reassuring notion—it ties in with the play’s moral, that democracy, for all its flaws, will finally arrive at a just solution to any problem—and Rose balances it ingeniously against the non-reassuring notion on which his story is built. A 16-year-old boy is on trial for stabbing his abusive father to death in a tenement. Finding him not guilty is the only alternative to electrocution, and Rose constructs the evidence—an eyewitness, an identifiable weapon, a weak alibi—to seem as damning as possible, so that the lone juror who doubts (Boyd Gaines) can deconstruct it, piece by piece. Those who care to think ahead can notice—another instance of Rose’s fair-mindedness—that his version is just as debatable as the prosecution’s: What does he know, for instance, about the witness’s eyesight?
Race and class inevitably come into the discussion—one of the jurors is a not-so-secret bigot, another from the wrong side of the tracks—as does generational conflict. The ringleader of the give-‘im-the-chair party (Philip Bosco), who starts out speaking for the majority and ends by crying alone, is the most schematically realized of all the roles as written. It’s high praise for Bosco that he’s able to build up and incarnate a raving passion that makes his factitious story seem wholly believable. Even more fun, because the material’s better, is watching Peter Friedman, as the bigot, stoke up his indignation, twig by blazing twig, till it finally explodes in a roaring blaze. Not that one should gainsay the quieter performances: the way Adam Trese hitches his shoulders as he changes his mind, or the resentful tone in which James Rebhorn praises Gaines for analyzing the evidence so astutely (thus ruining everyone’s day). And I’m probably not alone in finding my favorite moment to be the wildly improbable one in which Larry Bryggman, playing the refugee watchmaker who inevitably acts as a semiofficial spokesman for democracy, goes ballistic about John Pankow having voted the right way for the wrong reason. At such points, if Rose hadn’t been so concerned to supply lectures on our constitutional rights and the responsibilities they entail, you could almost call him a wit. Even with the lectures, one can applaud him for inspiring so much actorial wit and invention in his interpreters.