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One Bored Critic

Twelve Angry Men's flaws have always been there, but now they're more evident than ever.

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Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre

In 2007 the Brit weekly magazine The Spectator published a blistering attack on Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose's venerated drama in which a lone dissenter gradually persuades his fellow jurors that personal and social prejudices have influenced their perception that the "slum kid" defendant in a murder trial is guilty. Leo McKinstry argued that Rose's chestnut was "liberal twaddle," typifying "the triumph of bleeding hearts throughout the institutions that should be protecting our society." Although McKinstry's tortured logic and willful ignorance were laughable (should conservatives oppose trial by jury?), the essay ignited a firestorm in the blogosphere. Legal types leaped to Rose's defense, chronicling real-world experiences ad nauseum to prove his accuracy.

All the hubbub overlooked a point that's made plain by the stage version of Rose's tale running now at Raven Theatre: Twelve Angry Men is such a facile, schematic exercise in wish fulfillment that it's hardly worth arguing about.

The original teleplay aired on CBS's Studio One at the height of the McCarthy era, just a year after the controversial executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing atomic secrets to the USSR. (Sidney Lumet made his Oscar-nominated film three years later, in 1957.) In that historical moment Rose's warning about the danger a moblike mentality presents to an unpopular, marginalized defendant had a certain urgency. Arthur Miller had explored similar territory a year earlier in The Crucible. But Rose was no Arthur Miller—or maybe he just assumed a television audience needed a script so broad and blunt that any idiot could get the point.

Within the first 15 minutes it's obvious—thanks to the heroic clear thinking of impartial, unbiased Juror Eight—that there's reason to doubt the defendant's guilt and that most of those who insist otherwise are just grinding personal axes. One juror believes "those people" are natural criminals. Another has a "lousy son" of whom the defendant reminds him. A third wants to get to a baseball game on time. The rest are singularly dense until Juror Eight enlightens them. The ensuing 90 minutes drive home points already made, as Rose takes every opportunity to instruct and edify rather than dramatize.

The play is further handicapped, now, by studies undertaken over the last 50 years—including the Chicago Jury Project—showing that (a) juries with lone holdouts never end up voting for the minority opinion and (b) lone holdouts tend to be obstinate, unreasonable types rather than dispassionate, open-minded, justice-hungry Juror Eights. Most of us know that introducing extrinsic evidence into jury deliberations—as Juror Eight does when he brings a switchblade into the jury room to crack the case wide open—is misconduct and would bring the trial to a swift dismissal. Perhaps most important, procedural crime dramas like Law and Order and CSI have set a standard for legal intrigue head and shoulders above anything you could see on television in the 1950s.

In an attempt to make Twelve Angry Men more relevant to a contemporary audience, director Aaron Todd Douglas employs a multiracial cast. But varying skin tones add no complexity to the script. Instead they made me wonder how such a jury could've been empaneled in 1950s America.

Beyond the casting gambit, Douglas brings few ideas to his production. The show proceeds dutifully and unimaginatively to its inevitable conclusion. With acting that generally ranges from serviceable to stiff, the dialogue rarely has the ring of authenticity and the numerous bursts of anger often seem to spring from nowhere. As Juror Eight, C.L. Brown makes a compelling case for his character's humanity—but then he's got the only role that's something more than a mouthpiece.   

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