Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Doing Justice to 'Angry Men'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Doing Justice to 'Angry Men'

Article excerpt

Before NBC's "Law & Order" brought courtroom drama into viewers' living rooms, the 1950s teleplay "Twelve Angry Men" focused on the emotions of jurors debating their verdict in a trial.

When Americans tuned into Studio One on Sept. 20, 1954, they were invited into a dingy, colorless jury room, where 12 white men jabbed and argued with each other for 54 continuous minutes in a live, crackling melodrama, "in the best sense of that word," says actor Boyd Gaines.

The Roundabout Theatre has resurrected the Reginald Rose play on Broadway, creating one of the surprise hits of the season.

During rehearsals, the cast - including Mr. Gaines - was worried. "We thought audiences would be expecting to see a museum piece, an artifact," he says. "But what we deliver is this ripping yarn, and they're all very surprised that they get so involved."

In "Twelve Angry Men," a teenage boy is accused of killing his father, and all the audience know is what it learns through the deliberations, primarily that the crime took place in a slum neighborhood, and that the accused had a troubled past.

"We're using the original text expanded by the playwright from the teleplay, but still keeping it set in 1954," Gaines explains, "and in those days, New York law restricted the jury pool, to keep the 'riff-raff' out of the court system. It was very racist. The playwright's notes indicate that there was a 90 percent chance that a jury would be all white males. Women could volunteer, but would not be called."

In the opening moments, 11 jurors are ready to convict; a guilty verdict would doom the boy to the electric chair. Only Gaines's character, Juror No. 8 - the characters remain nameless - expresses some doubt. "He never says the defendant is innocent, only that he has doubt, and he believes that expressing doubt can be a virtue, rather than surrendering to the prejudices of those who come in with absolute certainty that the son killed his father," says Gaines.

One of Juror No. 8's most vocal critics, Juror No.10, is portrayed by another Broadway veteran, Peter Friedman, who credits the writing with "keeping the ball aloft. …

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