I'm pretty sure I was in high school when I first saw Sidney Lumet's 1957 film version of 12 Angry Men, the Reginald Rose teleplay that debuted on CBS's Studio One. In that justly lauded script, a jury must decide whether a New York City teenager is guilty of murdering his father. Not only is there a direct eyewitness, but another nearby resident heard a cry of, "I'm going to kill you!" followed by the thump of a body on the floor. That same "earwitness," an old man in the apartment below the murder, reported seeing the accused flee the building. As if that isn't enough to convict the kid, there's a mountain of circumstantial evidence including a rare switch knife found in the father's chest. Only one juror remains unpersuaded, the idealistic Juror #8 (played by Henry Fonda in Lumet's film). He's opposed by the blatantly racist Juror #10, coldly rational Juror #4, and pugnacious Juror #3. As Rose's story progresses, we learn details about each juror--especially #3--that may have colored their initial opinions. I fell in love with the movie instantly. It spoke to my growing suspicion that not everything in the world is as clear-cut as it seems, and that justice is a largely subjective abstraction.
My favorite performance in the film wasn't Fonda's, though. He's fine, of course, but the standout for me was a fella named Lee J. Cobb, the burly old crab who played Juror #3. Except he wasn't that old! I learn from Wikipedia that Cobb was just about my age when he appeared in the movie. It was shot a few years after Cobb was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, for which he reluctantly named names. (Read his Wikipedia page. You undoubtedly would've done the same in his circumstances.) Cobb is ferocious in 12 Angry Men. His amazing career stretched for over four decades, and this was among his most praiseworthy efforts. I thought, "Here's an actor I can get behind, committed and fierce. He uses his size to his advantage. There's nothing comic about it. Cross your eyes at him funny, and he's likely to take your head off." And then I thought, "Someday I'd love to play that role myself." I kinda knew it'd happen, someday anyway, and that premonition both excited and terrified me.
So that was thirty years ago. Director Vicki Webb has now cast me as Juror #3 in Lakewood Playhouse's production  of the stage adaptation. To be honest, I don't think I even auditioned for that role, assuming I'd be lucky to get anything in a town full of talented actors. But once I reread the script, I realized I was in for a challenge. In some ways, it wouldn't be fun. My method being what it is (a personalized variation on the Meisner technique, if you're into that sort of shop talk), I wind up feeling a lot of what the character feels, and what Juror #3 feels most of all is frustration. It's important to walk into every rehearsal, then every performance, convinced that this time, that sanctimonious Juror #8 is gonna see the error of his ways and get with the program. And then, damn it all, he never does! Night after night, against inconceivable odds, that ol' deus descends in his machina yet again and hands Juror #8 the laurel, leaving Juror #3 in the cold. At play's end, our unwitting antagonist is in an awful place--alone, exposed, devastated. And yes, to some degree at least, I do feel that, night after night. It's psychotic, I grant you, but I do. It can make for a mopey drive home. Having now played similar roles in Oleanna and Hamlet, and at the plaintive request of my wife (who has to live with me after those drives), I'll be retiring my antagonist suit for a while after closing this show. So if you want to see me succeed at epic-failing, you'd better act fast!
The lines in this show are incredibly difficult to memorize. They repeat each other in slightly varied wording, switch intentions in mid-sentence, and skip around from topic to topic like a game of drunken hopscotch. Our cast still hasn't squeezed them all into a run, let alone delivered them in the proper order (though we do manage to hide our mistakes from most observers, a skill which shouldn't be valued lightly). As we slogged through our last few tech rehearsals, I honestly wasn't sure we'd have the time we needed to pull it all together. We were altering the show in significant ways the night before preview. I'm a proud man in some ways, so I hate for people to pay good money to come see me in a disaster. Ergo, despite the exhortations of good people at Lakewood Playhouse, I didn't do much to remind people opening weekend was upon us. By the time I knew we had a deserving production, I'd run out of the time needed to pimp it.
So now here we are in the hiatus between first and second weekend. Adam McKinney, subbing for me as critic for the Weekly Volcano, says the script is thematically "outdated ." He's not wrong. I feel Rose could've made the same points as well if not better by, for example, cutting Juror #10's big speech in half. Like McKinney, I find Juror #3's motivations 'too pat.' Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says she saw the film in college and it drove her toward the law, but she also admits the jury's behavior would demand a judgment of mistrial in any true homicide case. The play isn't perfect, Gentle Reader. It's just great.
I can tell you for a fact, we've given everything we had to make this show as relevant as humanly possible. Our director and I insisted from day one that every character should reveal both noble and lamentable traits. I made it my personal crusade to inject humor and humanity into an admittedly obnoxious, often set-chomping role. Now it's your turn to, as the show's ominous tag line would have it, "judge the jurors." Yikes.
I'm proud of what my new friends and I have brought to our 12 Angry Men. I hope you get a chance to see it. If not, add the movie to your Netflix queue. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself thinking deep thoughts about justice and equality under the law. Oh, and hey! If you wouldn't mind, spare some sympathy for poor, cranky Juror #3. He's doing the absolute best he can.