Twelve Olde War Horses

The decade that brought us Brylcreem and Alfred E. Neuman is ever at our side. At your neighborhood movie theater Pleasantville is eulogizing the '50s as though it existed only through our television screens. In the flesh, the principals of Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men at the Cleveland Play House (through December 6) are still duking it out in that jury room as they have been since Annette Funicello got her first training bra.

As Pleasantville would have it, the '50s was a colorless honeycomb of Norman Rockwell toy towns. Behind every brownie-baking mom, every Princeton-cut gray-flanneled dad, and every chipper Mouseketeer lurked a deadly, castrating, mindless conformity. Some called it McCarthyism and others labeled it the American way of life (modern translation: "family values"). Turn the dial and you get a '50s diversity not covered in Pleasantville: those ducktailed rock and rollers, the nutty Lucille Ball madcappers, the paranoid Twilight Zone-ers.

Those who managed to stay awake for social studies will recall the civics class '50s works by earnest New York liberals wearing horn-rimmed glasses that warned us against the perils of racism, vigilantism, and conformity; these were invariably expanded on the big screen by Hollywood leftists. Gary Cooper in the Wild West stood alone against injustice; alien pods threatened to rob us of our humanity; Tony Curtis learned to coexist with Sidney Poitier; and, most vividly of all, Henry Fonda made our legal system behave with the same moral authority as Captain Video and his Video Rangers did in defeating the evil Dr. Pauley.

Rose parlayed his long-ago jury duty into a lifetime annuity. He first wrote Twelve Angry Men as a TV play. It covered all bases with its combat battalion microcosm of white American manhood. In Rose's jury there was a redneck bigot, a sports-loving wiseguy, a callow advertising executive, a milksop, a dumb lug, a wily old coot, a stern CPA, a hot-tempered autocrat, a gentle immigrant, and to steer things upward, a Lincoln-esque liberal.

Rose hit all the right notes: evidence sifting, crime solving, the nail-biting suspense of watching eleven jurors being wooed to say their initial "guilty" votes, and the Capra-esque testament to the fundamental decency of the "little man." It was a suspenseful, jam-packed ninety minutes, eschewing dull plausibility for shivers, nervous anticipation, and ultimately the contented sigh of liberals patting themselves on the back.

Scouting another chance to perpetuate his trademark laconic decency, Henry Fonda starred in and coproduced the exceptionally well-wrought 1957 film version. Sidney Lamut's taut direction and Boris Kaufman's crystalline photography and stunning close-ups of Edward Hopper-type faces gave Rose's melodramatic script the illusion of a minor classic. In the forty years since the film, there has been a high-powered TV remake, followed by a community theater re-write with a sexually mixed jury called Twelve Angry People--so Aunt Mabel could also take a crack at seething.

At the Cleveland Play House is the crafty writer's latest incarnation. The controversy level has been cranked up by casting yesterday's oppressed as the oppressors. Ed Begley's professional bigot is now of the same race as the saintly Sidney Poitier.

The original's implicit racism is now broadcast in stereophonic sound with constant references to "they" and "them." Except for the mention of Boris Yeltsin and the occasional recent sports figure, the script remains basically the same. Only the wool blends, the cuts of the ties, and the haircuts have switched generations.

On stage, even with Peter Hackett's sharp direction, the cinematic virtues are lost: the tight editing, the close-ups of Fonda's compelling eyes, the beads of sweat on Jack Klugman's brow, Lee J. Cobb's magnificent rants, all so much more compelling than Rose's social studio dialogue.

Yet there are gains: the "Last Supper" grouping of the jurors, the cathedral-like grandeur of Robert N. Schmidt's courthouse set. And there is the immediacy of hot, live flesh. Mike Hartman, as juror number eight, gives viewers a second chance to savor in 3-D the oak-tree Americana once patented by Fonda: It's not quite the real thing, but, like Parkay, it's an admirable substitute.

Like Dolly Levi returning to Harmonia Gardens, it is a thrill to have Andrew May, the Play House's Tom Hanks/Jimmy Stewart of the '80s, back at his old post. For those who thrill to icons, there is a frog-voiced, pint-sized character actor named John Fiedler, who has made an illustrious career of playing James Thurber-esque squirts in dozens of plays and films, ranging from The Odd Couple through Raisin in the Sun, various Winnie the Pooh epics (he's the voice of Piglet), and the original 1957 Twelve Angry Men. The years have endowed him with a saintly aura, and as the kindly old juror, he gives the evening a plangent resonance.

The Play House experience is akin to a class reunion where old acquaintances spawn facelifts and newfangled hairdos. Despite this cosmetic tampering, the loss of youth and freshness, and its old tendency to preach, the play still holds charm as a sturdy old war horse.

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