Review: ’12 Angry Men’ is still a relevant and important play

12 Angry Men review

Carl Wallnau stars as the justice-seeking Juror #8 in “12 Angry Men” at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center.

“Let’s vote. Maybe we can all go home,” says one juror soon after the start of Reginald Rose’s jury room drama, “12 Angry Men,” which The Company Theatre Group is presenting at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center through Nov. 17.

If you have any memory of the explosive 1957 movie, which starred Henry Fonda, you know that’s not exactly how it’s going to go.

Originally a television play in 1954 — significantly, just as the Civil Rights Movement was starting — and adapted into a play in 1956, and then the famous feature film in ’57, “12 Angry Men” is about seeking justice in a world filled with prejudice. Not surprisingly, it seems as vital now as it ever did. And it’s hard not to think of modern politics when the bigoted Juror #10 (no characters are ever identified by name) cries out, “I’m sick and tired of facts. You can twist ’em any way you want.”

Like 10 of her fellow jurors, Juror #10 (played by Andrea Prendamano) makes a quick decision about the murder case, in which a poor, inner city teen is accused of murdering his father. (I’m not sure if the defendant is ever described as African-American or Latino, but that’s implied by the way the jurors talk about him.) The holdout is Juror #8 (Carl Wallnau), an architect who has some nagging doubts, and repeatedly votes “not guilty” when the jurors poll themselves.

The play is, basically, made up of the 12 of them hashing it out, going over the evidence and being forced, in some cases, to look inward and ask themselves difficult questions. It’s riveting, on a psychological level, even if some of Juror #8’s arguments come together too neatly; he almost seems, at times, like a detective, magically investigating the case while never leaving the jurors’ room.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t sound right to me,” he says, for instance, while going over one witness’ testimony, Moments later, he comes up with a undeniable argument why it can’t possibly be true.

Paul Whelihan, left, and Frank Licato in “12 Angry Men.”

Wallnau embodies old-fashioned, all-American decency as the humble but insistent justice-seeker, and Prendamano does a good job at projecting savage cruelness as the bigoted Juror #10. These are two of the play’s juiciest roles: The third is the gruff, resolutely stubborn Juror #3, played with appropriate menace by Frank Licato. (Licato and Wallnau are two of four cast members who are artistic director of other professional theaters: Wallnau holds that position with Centenary Stage Company and Licato does so with Hudson Theatre Works. Juror #3, Paul Whelihan, is affiliated with Pushcart Players; Juror #7, Michael Bias, with Garage Theatre.)

The program tells us the play is set in the “present day,” and some changes are made to the script to reflect this. A mention of the Dempsey-Firpo boxing match, for instance, is changed to Tyson-Spinks.

Other lines could have been changed, as well. Juror #7 says, for instance, in response to Juror #8’s theories, “He should write for Amazing Detective magazine. He’d make a fortune.” I mean, do people still read detective magazines? And can you make a fortune writing for them?

Director Lou Scarpati adds an interesting twist by making three of the “Angry Men” women. Danielle Cornell and Reegan McKenzie are fine as the meek Juror #2 and the friendly, quirky Juror #12, respectively, and Prendamano is utterly convincing as the brutish Juror #10.

Scarpati also casts Phillip Hannah, who is African-American, as the Foreman (Juror #1), which makes from some awkward moments, since one of the play’s main themes is racial prejudice, and the Foreman never reacts to his fellow jurors’ outrageous statements. Some of insults are brief or subtle enough that you can see the Foreman, an even-tempered character, ignoring them. But at one point, Juror #10 launches into a full-blown, extended racist tirade. And the Foreman just sits there? I’m all for nontraditional casting, but in this case, it turned into a bit of a distraction.

Of course, it was Rose’s intent to show the potential danger of a bunch of white (and, in some cases, not particularly conscientious) men sitting together in a room, deciding the fate of a poor, minority youth. So having one of the jurors be African-American really changes the dynamic.

There is no question that “12 Angry Men” is still a relevant and important play. But maybe a more thorough rewrite is needed, to really bring the play into the present.

The Company Theatre Group presents “12 Angry Men” at the Hackensack Performing Arts Center through Nov. 17. Visit hacpac.org.

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