BY KATHLEEN CAMPION
A growing share of Broadway box office relies on the tourist trade, the clear target audience of “A Time to Kill,” Rupert Holmes’ adaptation of John Grisham’s novel.
Given the now requisite standing ovation and the odd hooting that followed Wednesday night’s performance, it might be said to have hit its mark.
You can almost hear the pitch:
“Let’s do a Broadway show based on a blockbuster Grisham novel, that was already a box office success as a 1996 film. Let’s throw in a Matthew McConaughey (who played the lead in the film) look alike, Sebastian Arcelus, as the lead. Let’s sweeten it with television stars the out-of-towners will warm too, like Fred Thompson (Law and Order) and Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences).”
This is a belt-and-suspenders production.
The lead, Sebastian Arcelus, also a television actor (House of Cards), is in the unenviable position of playing Matthew McConaughey’s Jake Brigance. He plays Jake as we remember him. But, either the actor or the director (Ethan McSweeny) might have reached for something more, or something else.
John Douglas Thompson, the defendant, brings variety to a role that could have been a caricature. The father of the ten-year-old rape victim, he is righteous and broken by turns. On the stand, facing up to withering questioning from the DA, Thompson is wary and scathing into the bargain. There is no “shucks” in his performance.
Playing the DA, Patrick Page supplies his distinctive voice and alarmingly Grinchy smile to the oily and familiar role of southern politician on-the-make. Ashley Williams plays the trust fund kid with the LexusNexus brain. If her performance is uneven she has your attention. She’s not comic relief so much as a change-up pitch. When she struts an over-the-top Ole’ Miss “miss” to engage Fred Thompson’s predictably irascible circuit court judge, Omar Noose, the audience all but cheers for the fresh air she brings.
The supporting actors do their part but they are not given much to do. Tom Skerritt, for example, plays Lucien Wilbanks, a lawyer who mentored Jake but has fallen on hard times though abuse of hard liquor. Skerritt plays it for humor, and only humor. There is a certain Jessica Rabbit quality to his performance: “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” And he is fun, if oddly costumed. The rest of the cast is dressed for Mississippi in the 1980s. Wilbanks is dressed for Barbados. It is distracting, so one wonders what costume designer David Woolard intended.
Ozzie Walls, as the black sheriff of Ford County, shoulders the most physical role as he subdues a would-be bomber, breaks up a courtroom fight, and handles the manacling of the prisoner throughout. (The fights are point perfect, designed by fight director David Leong.) While Walls has a lot of “business,” it is his quiet authority with his character that keeps us watching him when some around him are chewing the scenery.
And speaking of scenery, the impressive set from James Noone, does a great job of varying what is essentially a locked down courtroom script. In the film, the cameras move. On Broadway the set whirls around as scenes change. The whirling eventually gets tiresome in the repetition.
Projection Designer Jeff Sugg slams graphic and video images over the spinning scene changes to create cinematic moments: the child’s rape that is the through line of the plot, newscasters presumably reporting on the racial maelstrom generated by the trial, and images of the roiling crowds of KKK menacers and NAACP supporters outside the courthouse. The visual device is effective but as the play is already a version of a film which is a version of a novel – well, you get the sense of make up your mind!
Reggie Rose established the legal procedural as a theatrical genre with Twelve Angry Men in 1957. His screenplay withstood the confines of the static jury room set. Even prep school versions, which have been legion, hie to the theatrical nature of the play as a play. Somehow Grisham’s page-turner, which flourished as a film, falls rather flat as a play despite the noisy effects, in Rupert Holmes adaptation staged at the Golden Theater on 45th…not bad, just drawn that way.
A Time to Kill
Based on the book by John Grisham, adapted for the stage by Rupert Holmes; directed by Ethan McSweeny; sets by James Noone; costumes by David C. Woolard; lighting by Jeff Croiter; music and sound by Lindsay Jones; projections by Jeff Sugg; fight director, David S. Leong; hair and wig design by Paul Huntley; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; technical supervisor, Peter Fulbright; production stage manager, James Latus; company manager, Jennifer Kemp; general manager, 101 Productions, Ltd. Presented by Daryl Roth, Eva Price, Jonathan Mann, Martian Entertainment, Peter May, Square 1 Theatrics, Judith Ann Abrams/Jayne Sherman, David Bryant/Rock Candy Productions, Bryan K. L. Byrd III/the Storyline Project, Mary Beth Dale/Avram Freedberg, Elliott Masie/Sara Beth Zivitz and Philip Meissner/Slosberg Productions. At the John Golden Theater, 252 West 45th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200, atimetokillonbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Sebastian Arcelus (Jake Brigance), John Douglas Thompson (Carl Lee Hailey), Ashley Williams (Ellen Roark), Tom Skerritt (Lucien Wilbanks), Tonya Pinkins (Gwen Hailey), Chiké Johnson (Ozzie Walls), Patrick Page (Rufus R. Buckley), Jeffrey M. Bender (DeWayne Looney), Dashiell Eaves (Pete Willard/D. R. Musgrove), J. R. Horne (Vernon Pate), John Procaccino (Drew Tyndale/Dr. W. T. Bass), Tijuana T. Ricks (Norma Gallo), Lee Sellars (Billy Ray Cobb/Terrell Grist/Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver) and Fred Dalton Thompson (Omar Noose).