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Review: Combustible, timeless ‘12 Angry Men’ sets Laguna afire

October 11, 2017

Great writing can endure across decades and centuries, reminding us of the profundity of the human condition.

Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” is a perfect case in point: A dozen men sit in a room discussing the pros and cons of the murder case they saw unfold in court over three days.

The play uses a single set, no special or technical effects, and no bells and whistles – just the pure drama of 12 citizens struggling to do what each believes is the right thing.

Rose’s 1954 teleplay was inspired by his own stint as a juror in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square courthouse earlier that year. He adapted it for the 1957 film, co-producing with star Henry Fonda, later rewriting it for the stage multiple times.

Despite his long career spanning theater, film and television, the prolific Rose’s reputation rests with this one great work.

To see a production of “Twelve Angry Men” at its finest, look no further than Laguna Playhouse. Director Michael Matthews has assembled a powerhouse cast that mines for all it’s worth this timeless, perceptive testament to the glories of the American jury system.

As the case of a 16-year-old accused of murdering his father, then fleeing the scene, seems a no-brainer, the jury’s initial vote is nearly unanimous. Dissenting Juror No. 8 (Seamus Deaver), though, has nagging doubts. At the outset, he stands alone.

The roster of jurors arrayed against him is formidable, led by Juror No. 3 (Richard Burgi), who believes all teen-age sons are “rotten,” with particular animosity toward the defendant. Siding with him from the get-go are unabashed bigot No. 10 (John Collela), facts- and logic-oriented No. 4 (Rick Cosnett) and obnoxious sports fan No. 7 (John Massey).

At first, No. 8’s efforts to coax a reasonable doubt seem a lost cause. Juror No. 1, the jury foreman (Matthew Henerson), suggests “we show him where he’s mixed up,” and No. 2 says all 11 should “convince him where we’re right and he’s wrong.”

But No. 8’s commitment to getting at the truth never wavers. At first his only convert is frail, elderly Juror No. 9 (Andy Barnicle). Soon, though, juror Nos. 2 (Mueen Jahan), 5 (Dennis Renard), 6 (Tony Sancho), 11 (David Nevell) and 12 (Erik Odom) are on the fence.

The script builds an incredible amount of suspense as we watch each man’s arguments, which frequently boil over into heated confrontations, lead to repeated votes and re-votes as each strains to achieve a unanimous vote of either guilt or for acquittal. The dialogue flows naturally, rarely sounding scripted.

The murder case hinges on a mosaic of minutiae, all brilliantly elucidated by Rose via the jurors’ picking apart and discussion of the trial. The more they talk, the more details emerge.

Documenting deliberations lasting nearly two hours are a wall clock and late-afternoon sunlight that soon melts into dusk. Traffic noise and rumbling thunder, a summer cloudburst and the jury room’s grimy windows add to the sense of realism, thanks to spot-on lighting (by Tim Swiss), sound design (Mike Ritchey), set design (Stephen Gifford) and period costumes (Kate Bergh).

Rose’s skilled writing turns what could have been a humdrum account into spellbinding, issues-oriented drama. The jurors, a cross-section of urban American men in the mid-’50s, represent a range of professions and educational and socioeconomic levels. Where a lesser writer would have reduced each of the 12 to stereotypes, Rose instead develops and fleshes out individualistic personalities.

Credible New Yorkers all, Matthews’ dozen are dandy, breathing invigorating life into Rose’s crackling text. Skip this production and you deny yourself an experience that embodies the most moving, thought-provoking qualities of live performance. See it and you’ll cheer for this great classic of the American theater.

Younger and more handsome than Fonda or Robert Cummings, who essayed the role, respectively, for film and TV, Deaver is an articulate, intelligent, quick-thinking No. 8 – logic-minded, but not without emotion.

An advocate for getting at the truth, he doesn’t claim to have all the answers, telling the others, “I don’t know what the truth is. No one really does.”

With his pristine pinstriped suit, gruff voice and violent temper, Burgi’s loud, vehement No. 3 would be right at home in “The Godfather,” an overbearing tough guy accustomed to bullying or shouting down anyone who crosses him.

Collela’s dynamic, scornful No. 10 restlessly prowls the stage as he spews ugly epithets, all directed at the defendant and other unnamed racial minorities referred to only as “they” and “them.”

Cosnett is a fastidious, ultra-civilized, young-ish No. 4, the calm, cool juror who, when asked if he sweats, replies “No – I don’t.” Massey’s loutish, jittery No. 7 evokes laughs and loathing, impatiently drumming the table while cracking wise. With no qualms about the death penalty, he castigates those lobbying for acquittal.

As No. 9, former Playhouse artistic director Barnicle is aptly slow-moving, stoop-shouldered and hoarse-voiced, and Nevell’s No. 11, a European watchmaker, skirts heroism in his impassioned views of the objectivity and fairness of democracy.

Matthews imbue less prominent roles with more volatility: Sancho is a fiery No. 6, unafraid to confront No. 3, Renard’s No. 5 is more vocal than polite, and Henerson’s jury foreman is thin-skinned and less than conciliatory.

Succinct and stark is the late-play plea for tolerance and mercy, “Let him live.” That one of No. 8’s former antagonists is the person to speak the line makes the play’s closing minutes that much more profound, and profoundly moving.

‘Twelve Angry Men’

When: Through Oct. 22. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Oct. 15; no 2 p.m. Oct. 12

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

Tickets: $60-$105

Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

Suitability: All ages

Rating: ****

Information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.com

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