Making its first Broadway appearance a half-century after its original incarnation, the Roundabout’s production of Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” takes its cue as much from the taut 1954 teleplay, which clocked in at a brisk 50 minutes, as from any subsequent, expanded version for stage or screen. Director Scott Ellis drives the ensemble of sterling theater actors like a demanding jockey astride a trusted steed, and if he tends to gallop unduly through some character-establishing dialogue, his intermissionless staging brings a rousing urgency to this bristling drama that helps to hide the work’s liberal didacticism.
First seen on CBS’ “Studio One,” directed by Franklin Schaffner and starring Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone, the play was adapted by Rose using previously discarded material for Sidney Lumet’s 1957 screen version with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. An inferior amateur stage version made the rounds for years, adapted by Sherman L. Sergel from Rose’s teleplay. The playwright’s more nuanced stage version was first produced in 1964 and revised in 1996 for a London production directed by Harold Pinter. That text also became a solid 1997 Showtime made-for-cabler, with William Friedkin directing a starry cast led by Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.
While the latter version contemporized the action, allowing for an ethnically mixed jury, Rose’s play was and is very much rooted in a 1950s setting, placing a dozen combustible white men of different temperaments and social extractions around a table in a closed room to thrash out a difficult decision.
Ellis returns the action to an unair-conditioned jury room of a New York City courthouse on a sweltering day in late summer 1954. But the remoteness in time of its setting and the now jarringly uniform color and gender of its jurors does nothing to dim the ongoing relevance of the play’s themes of judgment, prejudice and the right to defend an unpopular opinion; its examination of the jury system, the democratic process and the concept of reasonable doubt; and its careful, humanistic weighing of the decision to punish a crime by taking a life.
Opening with the judge’s final instructions heard offstage before jury deliberations begin (the voice is Robert Prosky’s), the play deals with a case that seems open-and-shut to 11 of the 12 men — the fatal knifing, allegedly by a slum kid, of his father. While the accused was a Latino in previous productions, Ellis declines to establish his identity beyond that of a 16-year-old from an ethnic minority.
The spark to the dramatic flame is Juror #8 (Boyd Gaines), initially the sole dissenting not-guilty vote — not because he’s convinced the defendant is innocent but because he’s unconvinced the evidence is sufficiently rock solid in a case where the death sentence will apply.
As each of the characters airs his views, the case is taken apart and the unenterprising work of the court-appointed defense attorney is called into question, prompting the jurors to change their verdict one by one until staunchly unbending Juror #3 (Philip Bosco), the most vehement advocate of a guilty verdict, breaks down and goes along with the majority decision.
Gaines and Bosco have the meatiest roles, the former a quietly intelligent voice of reason, stability and unintimidated independent thought, the latter a hotheaded bully, his judgment clouded by bitter personal experience that ultimately unlocks his painful emotional exposure.
But alongside these controlled, anchoring perfs is a superb ensemble fleshing out Rose’s complex characterizations, each of them taking a bracing turn in the spotlight. This studiedly democratic aspect gives the play a somewhat schematic feel but also helps make it the sturdy chestnut it is.
Their emotions steadily cranked up with each progressive shift in the vote, the seasoned cast of stage vets is without a weak link.
Tom Aldredge brings a touching, fragile authority to the most elderly and perhaps most open-minded juror, who chimes in only when he has something carefully considered to say. As an unfailingly well-mannered Eastern European emigrant more sensitized to issues of democracy and prejudice, Larry Bryggman imbues his character with a precise correctness befitting his trade as a watchmaker.
Peter Friedman fuels the most bigoted of the jurors with pent-up rage and resentment, making his explosive speech one of ugly revelation. James Rebhorn’s smart, brittle stockbroker is a methodical stickler for hard facts. John Pankow’s aggressive wise-ass, anxious to finish deliberating so he can get to a Yankees game, is unapologetically a modest thinker and all too human.
Even the less volatile characters register effectively. Kevin Geer’s soft-spokenness and seeming lack of self-assurance deftly disguise a not entirely docile personality; Mark Blum makes a measured, fair-minded foreman; and Michael Mastro backs his prickly defensiveness with dignity as the juror whose background is closest to that of the accused. Robert Clohessy conveys a warmly humble nature as a housepainter accustomed to letting his boss do his thinking and willing, up to a point, to bow to the sharper intellects around him. While as a shallow advertising man, Adam Trese brings an uneasy self-awareness of the thinness of his moral fiber.
Countering the static nature of the action, Ellis keeps the restless men moving whenever possible around Allen Moyer’s unfussy set, which realistically conjures an institutional feel. The set shifts laterally at various times during the action to reveal private conversations taking place in an adjoining restroom.
Michael Krass’ costumes are subtle and unshowy (Moyer and Krass also teamed on this season’s “Reckless”), while Paul Palazzo’s lighting ably reflects both the deadening heat and the gathering storm.