Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: (Toronto) Twelve Angry Men

(photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The Fathers of Mad Men
by Zoe Erwin-Longstaff

What resonances does Twelve Angry Men have for today’s Canadian audiences? Reginald Rose’s famous play concerns a jury assembled in New York in the 1950s—respecting all the Aristotelian unities, it takes place over two hours as the men deliberate the fate of a 'slum' youth, whose conviction will send him to the electric chair. On the surface, the contemporary parallels aren’t obvious. The jury is homogenous (with one exception), the death penalty is something for backward Americans, and everyone has a regular job.  

It seems easy enough to dismiss the play as a period piece—one that nevertheless makes us chuckle at those cheesy 1950s colloquialisms. But as the internecine squabbles get underway, we come to the disturbing confrontation of the steadfastness of prejudice – racism, sexism, anti-elitism, and jingoism, sometimes subtle, sometimes unmistakable. One leaves the play with an overwhelmingly potent sense of the damage wrought by 50s masculinity that still looms over us today. 

The action unfolds in a kind of shoebox diorama, a long column down the middle of the space where we peer in, but also across it, at the audience’s reactions on the other side. This formation projects the right kind of claustrophobic, bullpen feel, and there’s enough skillful movement that we don’t mind that for much of the play we miss out on half the faces. 

Alan Dilworth’s production unfolds with a measured and logical cadence. His 12 actors each play distinct types, all rendered vividly without caricature. The physical movements are so precise that every move to undo a cufflink, wipe sweat off a brow, or slick back a comb-over feels deliberate. While each man displays anger at one point over the evening, only two or three are properly hot tempered throughout and the rest seem to vacillate between perturbed and jovial. The foreman projects just the perfect level of muted world-weariness, and the two blowhards of the group, Juror #3 and #10, are a dynamic bullying, blustering, pink-faced presence. 

The most remote character then is Juror #8 (made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film). His piercing conviction, his unwavering even-handedness, gives him an aura of saintliness, making him the obvious mouthpiece for the play’s didactic message. Still, there is a real gratification in watching such a tightly wound drama unfold, where even if the ultimate moral conclusion feels rather inevitable, we get a good amount of unexpected turns and reveals.

Dilworth’s play seems to borrow from the feeling of a television drama (which was the first incarnation of Twelve Angry Men), complete with music and an intermission like a commercial break. But toward the end, a truly dramatic speech delivered breathlessly by Joseph Ziegler as juror #10 elevates the piece and provides the production a distinct stamp. It is a harrowing moment of a man’s downfall, as Ziegler finally sinks down into his seat; a somber silence pulsed through the audience. 

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