Off Broadway gets a worthy specimen of the socially conscious courtroom drama with “Murder in the First.” The 1995 Alcatraz-based thriller that starred Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater translates pretty well to the stage — but although author, title and story are the same, character names are changed, and the film itself is cryptically uncredited. Performances by Tony nominee Chad Kimball (“Memphis”) and debuting Brit Guy Burnet propel the piece.
Plot is based on an actual case, albeit one whose facts were radically altered for the screen. Willie Moore (Kimball) is on trial for violently — and within plain sight — killing a fellow con. Intrepid junior lawyer Henry Davidson (Burnet), on his first case, turns the tables on the warden, the prison and the whole federal justice system by claiming that Moore wasn’t responsible due to a barbarous three-year stretch in solitary. Action proves compelling enough despite its predictable arc, with the defense scoring here and suffering setbacks there. In the end, Moore and Davidson achieve a moral victory.
Script comes from Dan Gordon, whose other screenplays include Kevin Costner starrer “Wyatt Earp” and Denzel Washington pic “The Hurricane.” He made his Broadway bow in 2009 with the short-lived Holocaust-themed outing “Irena’s Vow,” and “Murder in the First” is a significant improvement. Efficient direction comes from Michael Parva, who did the same chore on the earlier play (and is artistic director of the producing organization) and does an effective job keeping his cast of 15 moving on the miniscule stage.
Kimball is strong as the withdrawn and immature convict, while Burnet, a star of the U.K. soap “Hollyoaks,” makes an impressive New York bow as the dauntless attorney. He’s well supported by Larissa Polonsky as a senior lawyer (and lover) and John Stanisci as his brother, while the show’s most crackling scene is a confrontation between Burnet and Robert Hogan as the fatherly warden from Alcatraz.
Production clearly has bigger things in mind than a four-week, 200-seat run, as evidenced by the involvement of Main Stem producers Chase Mishkin and Barbara and Buddy Freitag. Large cast may prove difficult to swing commercially, especially if producers don’t opt for movie star casting for the two leads (and it would be a shame to lose Burnet in favor of a lesser actor with box office clout). Even so, “Murder in the First” deserves an afterlife.