Richard Thomas and George Wendt
I saw Twelve Angry Men, the black-and-white 1957 film, in high school in the 1990s. I remember it as a musty period piece — a dozen nameless talking heads in a stuffy jury room playing hot potato with the fate of a young murder suspect. No action, barely a set, just a dash of Agatha Christie–esque whodunit. But a more recent viewing made it clear that Reginald Rose’s script is no more a period piece thanMacbeth. The foundations of the American justice system, after all, have remained where our forefathers set them.
When Roundabout Theatre Company associate artistic director Scott Ellis (who comes from a family of lawyers) blew the dust off the script and brought the show to Broadway for the first time in 2004, it wasn’t for nostalgia’s sake. Given the proliferation of courtroom dramas and legal fiction in pop culture, it’s hardly surprising that Twelve Angry Men became the Roundabout’s longest-running production, lasting 32 weeks.
George Wendt, who plays the foreman (Juror #1) in the touring version of the Roundabout production that comes to the Colonial Theatre on Tuesday, is best known for Norm on Cheers , but he got his start in the politically oriented comic troupe Second City. He says the play speaks directly to current events “because it deals with the rights of the accused. People will see a lot of resonance with the situation going down today” — by which he means Guantánamo. “We’re more or less looking at sort of death of habeas corpus in a way. Nobody can tell how these things will play out, but it’s an icky precedent to not know what you’re being accused of. The rights of accused are a cornerstone in the Bill of Rights. Once habeas corpus is out of the mix, the others fall down like dominoes.”
Rose adapted the script that he originally wrote in 1954 for the CBS drama series Studio One . The film, Sidney Lumet’s directorial debut, fielded a legendary cast that included Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Yes, the current production stays faithful to the Father Knows Best– era haircuts, wardrobe, and clipped speech patterns, but those are surface details. What’s contemporary is how each man wrestles with his conscience as the group deliberate.
“It’s a good piece of drama, and that means it’s about people,” Wendt elaborates. “These people are not just archetypes. Their relationships and ideas are important, they’re human beings well crafted by Rose with frailties and strengths and prejudices and lack thereof. Little by little their stories come to light, and it’s less of a whodunit than a who-might-not-have-done-it-with-a-reasonable-doubt. But it’s not a civics class, it’s a crackling piece of theater that moves by like a locomotive — it’s a blindingly fast 90 minutes. The net effect is ‘Wow.’ ”
TWELVE ANGRY MEN | Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St, Boston | November 7-19 | $32.50-$72.50 | 617.931.ARTS or www.broadwayacrossamerica.com