I first saw the 1957 film of 12 Angry Men at the urging of my grandfather, who was always looking to hoodwink a happily ignorant teenager into a civics lesson. Having seen On Golden Pond a few years earlier, I kept waiting for Henry Fonda to ask Juror Nine if he wanted to "suck face," which I still contend would punch up the proceedings. But even without juror-on-juror face-sucking action and despite its sometimes hokey didacticism, Reginald Rose's 12 Angry Men is an engrossing drama. In the hands of a well tempered ensemble, such as the 24 hands assembled by Fifty Foot Penguin, it even generates a fair amount of suspense--no small feat for a script that's been on the docket a few thousand times and whose conclusion holds less surprise than counting the election ballots in Martin Sabo's Fifth Congressional District.
Performed under Zach Curtis's direction in one swift act, the play takes place on a sweaty summer day in a jury deliberation room where a cross section of white male New Yorkers hopes to quickly conclude a murder trial. A 19-year-old of unidentified non-Anglo ethnicity has been accused of killing his abusive father with a switchblade. His guilt is clear to all except Juror Eight (Bruce Hyde), a Henry Fonda-like liberal with a Socratic knack for spotting holes in arguments and a quirky distaste for sending guys to the electric chair in the face of reasonable doubt.
Number Eight stands alone at first, but slowly wins supporters. A few of his opponents are of comparable intellect--especially the man of reason handsomely played here by Edwin Strout--but his most stubborn foe, conveniently, is a moron. The fulminating Juror Three (Bob Malos) succeeds at knifing his own argument in the foot at every turn. Despite being burdened with the script's most obvious and implausible lines, the statuesque Malos gives his character a brutishness that's genuinely scary.
The entire cast manages likewise. These are thinly drawn characters--types, more or less--that together make a lifelike whole. My favorite is Dale Pfeilsticker's Juror Two, a sniveling conformist who changes sides at every passionately delivered point and counterpoint. Sporting the bow-tied nerdiness of the recently departed former Senator Paul Simon, Pfeilsticker's waffler lends the production its surest laughs and its subtlest critique.
Swedish mad genius August Strindberg has been properly attacked for his hypermisogyny, but both his fat-ism and his uncaring disregard for the health of the theatrical-illumination industry tend to slip by without remark. With that in mind, consider his call for the abolition of footlights from his preface to Miss Julie: "Lighting from below is said to have the purpose of making the actors' faces fatter. But why, I ask, should all actors have fat faces?" Strindberg would be pleased to know that In the Basement Productions' Miss Julie has no truck with footlights. Whether or not he would have been pleased with much else is a touch less certain.
The landmark 1889 naturalistic tragedy takes place on Midsummer Night in the kitchen of a Swedish count's estate. While the rest of the house drinks, gossips, and at one point in this staging smashes plates to the sounds of British dance-rock, a fateful class-crossing tryst ensues. Julie (Meagan Kittridge), the count's hot-to-trot daughter, seduces or is seduced by (director Kristin Richardson does a nice job of blurring this distinction) her father's ambitious valet, Jean (Dustin Gingerich).
Gingerich's Jean is a bit overheated in spots, but mainly succeeds at revealing his class resentment and scheming cruelty. This Julie, unfortunately, comes up a bit short. Kittridge hints at the young woman's mix of vixen and victim, but her late-play ululations drift toward melodrama, and she gives Julie a casual, determinably un-19th-century speaking style that puts her out of step with her co-stars. In a potentially revealing speech meant to be delivered at a whizzing pace, Kittridge gets the speed right but stumbles with her rhythm. Ultimately, In the Basement's isn't a terribly illuminating interpretation; perhaps footlights would help.