Reginald Rose’s anatomy of a murder trial, “Twelve Angry Men,” is one of those warhorse vehicles that always works, whether as 1954 TV special, 1957 feature film, 1997 cable movie or mixed-cast “Twelve Angry Jurors” at your old high school. At the Ahmanson, touring version of helmer Scott Ellis’ smash 2004 Rialto revival continues the cloistered suspenser’s winning streak, delivering 90 uninterrupted minutes of galvanizing entertainment.
Remarkably, no matter how many times you’ve seen the play, likelihood that the quarreling twelve will manage to agree on a young defendant’s guilt or innocence in his father’s murder seems even more remote than the thirteen colonies’ chances for consensus on independence in “1776.”
Yet the Declaration ultimately gets signed, and this jury finally does come to a decision. Sparked by the dogged efforts of the enlightened Juror #8 (Richard Thomas), initial lone spokesperson against a hastily decided guilty verdict, doubts are raised and minds changed, with aud alternately gasping and applauding at each new twist in the tale.
In most versions, those with personal investments in applying a death sentence – bullying #3 (Randle Mell), who sees his own rebellious son in this minority youth; wiseguy #7 (Mark Morettini) eager to get to that night’s Yankee game; and archetypal bigot #10 (Julian Gamble) offhandedly spouting racist contempt for law – are the ones who set off the most emotional fireworks, and these three actors are no slouches in the fireworks department.
Eschewing the deliberate coolness of predecessors Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon, Thomas goes toe to toe with the hardheads and returns as much passion as he’s attacked with. His excitement upon discovering conflicting or dubious testimony, and the implacability with which he presses the need to entertain reasonable doubt, effectively balance play’s emotional line and lend sincerity to Rose’s sometimes pat, Citizenship 101 cheerleading for the justice system.
George Wendt’s foreperson keeps restoring the group’s equilibrium, his quiet integrity removing all memories of Norm in “Cheers.” Other standouts include David Lively as #11, a watchmaker who awakens from passive listener to vehement advocate, and #9, audience favorite Alan Mandell, an elderly gent complete with pants-up-to-the-sternum whose quaint observations prove key to the outcome.
Perhaps best of all, because ad man #12 is so often just played for comedy relief, is T. Scott Cunningham’s persuasive portrait of a slick careerist who, for the first time ever, is forced to think through life-and-death questions and is transformed as a result.
Ellis masterfully orchestrates this mass of bodies and voices, no mean feat when as many as half are sitting with their backs to aud much of the time. Aided by outstanding body miking that picks up every important line even during the loudest melees, Ellis sends the focus back and forth with precision across and around the long jury table. He knows when characters need to move for variety’s sake, and when they (and we) require stillness in order to reflect.
Only directorial misstep is allowing deliberations to continue when the guard (Patrick New) is asked for, and brings in, the murder weapon. Since all jurors clam up tight whenever an official enters, their not doing so here rings false and deprives show of two engagingly real moments.
Still, prod offers plenty of reality to satisfy any aud, and not just from the superlative cast. Allen Moyer’s set exudes the painful institutional reality of grimy walls and mismatched chairs, while also proving stageworthy in its savvy placement of a side table and water cooler to believably motivate movement throughout.
Lighting and sound work in tandem to bridge photorealism and theatricality. Paul Palazzo’s lights take us from sweltering day to torrential night while subtly, imperceptibly altering to reflect the varying moods of elation and frustration within this literal and figurative hothouse.
And at carefully selected moments, Brian Ronan’s convincing sirens, rain and traffic noise remind us of the real world that jurors must reenter at the end of the day. Indeed, play begins with the screech of a passing El train that will play a critical role in these jurors’ search for the truth.
Do they uncover it? Some will be persuaded that they do, but Rose is careful to insert periodic reminders that establishing reasonable doubt is not the same as proving innocence. Ellis wisely ends his “Twelve Angry Men” on only a muted note of triumph, partly because making the right decision was such a near thing but mostly because, in the noisy halls of justice, there can never be 100% certainty that the right decision was reached after all.