Trial by Perjury

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Lying in the name of promoting justice is rarely a good idea. Just ask Alberto Gonzales' staff members who've had to step down for fear of perjuring themselves. Next week, America will witness an event of pure political theater as Gonzales, the sitting Attorney General, will be testifying before Congress.

The lead antagonist will be played by Senator Patrick Leahy (the Judiciary Committee chairman) but don't be surprised if a supporting character, Charles Schumer of New York (the junior senator who first called for the Attorney General to resign) steals the show.

After he finishes grilling Gonzales, I for one would like to subpoena Senator Schumer to come to Los Angeles. With his earnest speeches and conservative, workaday attire, Schumer (and his Brooklyn accent) would be right at home in the Scott Ellis production of Twelve Angry Men, currently running at the Ahmanson Theatre. But rather than have him step into one of the roles in Reginald Rose's well worn, 1954 civics lesson, I think he needs to set up a subcommittee to investigate false statements made by the Ahmanson marketing officials.

Granted, the consequences of misleading Congress are much worse than misleading Center Theatre Group subscribers, but it's worth noting the Ahmanson administration's dubious doublespeak.

First, their posters and programs hail Twelve Angry Men as "the Greatest Courtroom Drama of All Time!" Unfortunately, we can't even argue the merits of this statement--is the play better (or even comparable) to classic courtroom dramas like Inherit the Wind or Witness for the Prosecution, or newer ones like Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men or David Mamet's outrageous Romance which rode circuit at the Taper a few years back. In fact, we can't even rule in favor of Twelve Angry Men as a better courtroom drama than an episode of Perry Mason. Why? Because Twelve Angry Men isn't a courtroom drama at all. Not a single minute of it takes place in a courtroom. The whole conceit of the piece is that the action all transpires in Jury Room 2A.

Now, some may consider this a technicality. But listen to the other whopper that's been used in the advertising: "Direct from Broadway." Even Gonzales might have trouble saying this with a straight face. First of all, none of the cast members were in the Broadway version. Second, the set has been significantly modified. And third, the production has been touring since last year. If the Ahmanson marketing team were under oath, they would have to describe this Twelve Angry Men as "Direct from Dallas... Sacramento... and Seattle?"

Of course, none of this would matter if the production sizzled--or even if it possessed the same mild intensity it had on Broadway two years ago. There, strong performances by veteran character actors Philip Bosco, Larry Bryggman and James Rebhorn made the show a modest hit. Without the help of grandiose marketing, the run was extended seven times and earned a few Tony nominations.

Here at the Ahmanson, the cast "starring" Richard Thomas and George Wendt (featured in marketing photos despite a small role) is merely adequate, the direction slack, and the intimate drama is completely dwarfed in the huge space. The whole point of seeing Twelve Angry Men live (instead of just renting Sidney Lumet's crackerjack film version) is to feel like you're there in Jury Room 2A sweating it out. At the Ahmanson, the action feels so far away it sounds like you're experiencing the drama from Jury Room 5D--or better yet, the actual courtroom--a few doors down the hall.

Twelve Angry Men completes its sentence at the Ahmanson Theatre on May 6.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image by Joan Marcus