Oh, Just Hang Him! Angry Men, Sin-But No Drama

How can you change the entire meaning of a play by adding one word? Can you guess ?

The play is all but over, you add one little word, and absolutely everything changes in an instant.

I’ll give you a clue. The word is “not.”

There, you’ve got it! The play is a courtroom drama. The jury solemnly reaches its verdict: Guilty. You add “not.” Not guilty!

Perhaps I was wishing that Reginald Rose’s old 1950′s potboiler, Twelve Angry Men , at the American Airlines Theatre could be a little less predictable . My mind drifted a bit during the performance trying to figure out how to change the verdict and throw everything into happy chaos.

Something similar actually happened with a TV courtroom drama by John Osborne in 1960 called A Subject of Scandal and Concern . The verdict, which naturally came at the end, was “guilty,” but the actor playing the foreman of the jury got so carried away that he actually announced with a beaming smile on his face, “Not guilty!” (The play was taped and they had to do it all over again.)

For those of you who haven’t yet seen the Roundabout’s version of Twelve Angry Men , or the TV version of the play with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott in 1999, or the British stage version directed by Harold Pinter in 1996, or the U.S. TV version of 1967, or Sidney Lumet’s well-known film version with Henry Fonda in 1957, or Mr. Rose’s original one-hour TV version for CBS in 1954-or indeed the thousand and one amateur productions of Twelve Angry Men that continue to be staged far and wide throughout the land-I must not reveal that the black inner-city teenager accused of killing his father is innocent. It would spoil the suspense.

The point of Twelve Angry Men isn’t the verdict, however. The verdict has always been a foregone conclusion. Mr. Rose’s winning idea is to take us backstage into the jury room, where 11 stubborn members of the jury are convinced of the boy’s guilt and one decent, righteous man, Juror Eight, holds out for his innocence. The problem with everything that follows, however, goes back to the origins of the piece. It’s a formula TV drama.

Twelve Angry Men is pure American corn (“We’re dealing with human life here!”); it’s a creaky melodrama in which every character is a stereotype-The Good Guy Against The Odds, The Bully (with a secret), The Loudmouthed Bigot, The Wise Old Man, The Working Stiff, The Dope and so on; it’s a glib civics lesson (on the American Way, the jury system and The Common Man). It belongs to another pre– Law and Order age: all male jury, all white.

It’s comforting, in its shopworn way: The outcome isn’t in doubt, you’ve probably seen it before, everything about it is safe, and no one in the audience is challenged for a second. You might even enjoy a little weep, if you must. It is, in other malign words, a perfect vehicle for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s dozy subscribers who would sooner stay home and watch TV. They are watching TV.

Reginald Rose, the playwright of Twelve Angry Men , wrote for television for many distinguished years. (He created The Defenders .) And it was that malcontent John Osborne who once described TV dramatists wittily as “the pavement artists of theatre.” Still, there have been golden periods during the 50′s and 60′s when TV plays in both America and England were a real force. Twelve Angry Men wasn’t written by Paddy Chayevsky, however. Today, half a century on, you would be entitled to hope that the enormous popularity of Law and Order and all its familiar spin-offs would have compelled our theater to offer us something different -a radical alternative to the usual TV fare. Isn’t that the charter of all good theater?

But not at the nonprofit Roundabout, whose notion of an artistic policy is, above everything, the safe and secure-the revival of Twelve Angry Man , followed by another Sondheim revival and, coming soon, yet another A Streetcar Named Desire . Scott Ellis directs the histrionic angry men; Philip Bosco booms as Juror Three; a few of the others chew the scenery, too, but not James Rebhorn as Juror Four, Tom Aldredge as Juror Nine and Larry Bryggman as Juror Eleven. Boyd Gaines in the iconic Henry Fonda role of Juror Eight is lanky, sanctimonious and forbearing by the water cooler.

There’s a better courtroom drama at the Clurman Theater, though it doesn’t take place in a courtroom and, strictly speaking, it isn’t even a drama. Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) , directed by Carl Forsman for the enterprising New Group, is a docudrama drawn from evidence revealing the shameful role played by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, Archbishop of Boston, when hundreds of children were molested by priests in his archdiocese.

Playwright Michael Murphy has condensed two depositions in which the cardinal testified under oath in the civil suits bought against him by 88 abuse victims and their families. The attorney general of Massachusetts estimates that the number of abused children in the Archdiocese of Boston over the past six decades likely exceeds 1,000. What is at stake is the cardinal’s protection of the priests and his apparent indifference to their victims.

The strength of Sin is also its weakness. As drama, it’s dry and static. (A trip to the water cooler here really is an event.) It’s nit-picking (as the real evidence was). But instead of courtroom histrionics, we have the painstaking, cumulative facts that amount to a devastating indictment of the once-proud Cardinal Law (John Cullum) and the self-serving bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. Where, you might well find yourself asking, was God?

It isn’t the facts that so disturb us, nor even the pattern of priestly abuse and cover-up. Those abhorrences are generally known. What astonished me was the slow-dawning realization that the foggy, evasive, conveniently forgetful Cardinal Law ran his Boston archdiocese-one of the Catholic Church’s “crown jewels”-as if he were a corporate C.E.O. God is absent.

Cardinal Law could be the C.E.O. of Enron in denial. His befuddled concern was only for his child-molesting priests. Call his sympathy for them Christian charity (along with naïveté). And the victims? What of them? He delegated heartbreaking complaints from parishioners to a bishop he described as “in effect the chief operating officer.”

The victims and their families were ignored, their lives and faith abused and demeaned. Sin includes damning testimony from letters written to the cardinal by parents and priests who witnessed what was happening. They got nowhere. When the cardinal was asked if he could identify just one priest with allegations of sexual molestation against him who had been removed from any parish ministry, he replied glibly, “I don’t believe that there are any.”

“Did you ever think there was some need for action,” he was then asked by the lawyer for the abused boys, “even if it just involved getting the priests together and saying: This is intolerable. This type of conduct is intolerable. Do you understand my question?”

“I understand the answer that you want me to give,” the cardinal replied.

There was no sense of responsibility in the man, no remorse. He himself had committed no crime. But our unspoken verdict on him is guilty-guilty as sin. The civil suits against him were settled out of court. Cardinal Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002 and, protected by the Pope, was transferred to Rome.