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Theater review: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ marred by lack of subtlety

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Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” is many things. It’s a scathing critique of the nation’s judicial system, it’s a gut-wrenching investigation of prejudice (racial and otherwise) and it’s a nuanced portrait of toxic masculinity – of this rough-and-tumble-brawn-before-brains American life. Riveting as it is timeless, it’s a show that’s been staged time and time again, in many forms. “Twelve Angry Men” has graced the theaters of Broadway, the TV sets of mid-century Americans and, most memorably, the silver screen. Now, under the direction of the ever-prolific Liz Knarr ‘16 (“Rent”) and Alison Valentine ’16, Rose’s classic makes its way to the Stanford stage.

Produced by Women* in Theater, a new student organization dedicated to parity in gender representation, Valentine and Knarr’s “Twelve Angry Men” is, first and foremost, a re-imagining of Rose’s text, wherein 12 Stanford students – none of whom identify as men – take on the 12 historically male leads. And, judged solely as a re-imagining of this ilk, “Twelve Angry Men” succeeds – inverting gender roles, re-appropriating “manly” gestures and making a mockery of traditional machismo.

When judged as a cohesive product, however, “Twelve Angry Men” is admittedly a bit of a hot mess. The staging is dubious, the acting is hit-and-miss and the nuance of the original seems to have been vacuumed out, replaced by grand-standing and shout-it-for-the-cheap-seats spats. These are talented actors, tackling critically important issues, and yet “Twelve Angry Men” never stops feeling like it was thrown together overnight.

For those unfamiliar with the play, “Twelve Angry Men” is about 12 jurors who must deliver the verdict in a murder trial involving a young boy (sometimes poor, sometimes a person of color) accused of murdering his father. Staged as a single continuous scene (with a brief intermission), “Twelve Angry Men” springs into action when one of the jurors (usually called “Davis”) votes not-guilty in what their peers believe to be an open-and-shut case. The ensuing deliberation is rife with conflict, as logic and bias duke it out in the spotlight.

Enduring as “Twelve Angry Men” is, the strangest directorial choice of this production comes in the form of Valentine and Knarr’s infrequent alterations to the original dialogue. First mounted in 1954, “Twelve Angry Men” is riddled with antiquated phrasing and broad caricatures, and Valentine and Knarr smartly elect to leave most of Rose’s script intact. Yet, every so often, the actors shoehorn in references to contemporary popular culture (“Sherlock,” “Mad Men,” “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”), which feel completely unnatural. (Also – and this is a minor quibble – even in contemporary law, there is no way jurors would be permitted to keep their smartphones during deliberation).

And, as the play progressed, I couldn’t help but feel that this refusal to decide on a setting was a massive missed opportunity for Women* in Theater. On the one hand, Valentine and Knarr could have preserved the original’s time/place, in turn, allowing 12 people to re-appropriate a history from which individuals who aren’t men are so often excluded. Or Valentine and Knarr could have fully committed to the modern, re-casting Juror No. 9 as a Mexican immigrant (as opposed to European), or rendering explicit the jurors’ suggestions of the accused’s race.

Sitting in the Law School where the production was being mounted, I was also struck by the relative safety of the staging. With the actors lined up in a neat row behind one long table, “Twelve Angry Men” often resembled a table-read, with the actors only interacting with the space in times of conflict – a choice which left me wondering if the play wouldn’t be better experienced in the round. If I’m not mistaken, early publicity stills showed the cast performing around a single conference table, and I have to admit I was a shade disappointed when I discovered this would not be the set-up for the actual run.

You see, there’s an inherent loss of naturalism when actors are unable to face one other and, at times, this sort of staginess threatens to undermine Valentine and Knarr’s efforts. At one point, an ignorant juror embarks on a racially charged diatribe, and all the actors rise from their chairs to stare into space: In theory, it’s a stirring demonstration of solidarity, but in practice, it fails to read as anything but inorganic.

A similar lack of subtlety also pervades many of the performances. Everything is shouted for emphasis. Every dial is turned up to 11. Chairs fly (I counted five), actors are held back by other actors: In “Twelve Angry Men,” wars of words always wind up being fought with fists. Not to say that there isn’t tangible drama in this puff-up-your-chest approach to conflict, but over time, it’s rather easy to be desensitized to the ever-heightening violence.

These actors, however, are by no means inexperienced and some truly remarkable performances nearly justify the time commitment. Gianna Clark ‘19, for example, is absolutely breathtaking as the yet-to-be-convinced Juror No. 8. Her voice is electric, her mannerisms an exquisite exercise in the communication of emotion. During the aforementioned diatribe, she strides to the front of the stage and her face is bisected by the play of shadows and light. Eyes twitching, chest heaving, lips quivering: Watching Clark is like watching a storm cloud that never produces a bolt of lightning. She commands every shred of your attention even if she repudiates flashiness. Also of note? Noemi Berkowitz’s ’16 smarmy ad-executive (the role she was born to play), Bella Wilcox’s ’19 brilliantly rendered plain Jane, Johannah Brady’s ‘16 gum-smacking rabble-rouser and Alex Scott’s ‘16 stubborn broker (all glorious scene-stealers).

And, at the end of the day, regardless of the tidiness (or lack thereof) of the program, “Twelve Angry Men” is still entertaining theater with a never more important message about gender and prejudice. Women* in Theater is a very new organization and to expect them to rival the more polished, more rehearsed, more suitably financed Stanford main-stage productions is to expect the impossible. Yes, sometimes the dialogue seems improvised and the staging awkward, but the end product is still a show that bleeds passion and elbow grease. “Twelve Angry Men” isn’t “Rent,” but it’s nonetheless an interesting and truly refreshing effort.

A previous version of this review erroneously listed Liz Knarr as the lone director of “Twelve and Angry Men” and referred to Juror No. 11 as German (when he/she is solely characterized as a “European refuge” in the original text).

Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

This article has been updated to reflect students’ current identities.

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Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected]