Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Rousing Courtroom Drama at 59E59

Guy Burnet and Chad Kimball as attorney and client.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Rule #1 when attending a historically-based play written by Dan Gordon:  Never expect historical accuracy.

Gordon received some flack a few years back when it was revealed that his play Irena’s Vow, a melodramatic docudrama more-or-less based on the true story of a Polish woman who protected and saved the lives of a dozen Jews during the Holocaust, contained some fabrications.

This was three years ago.  Now Gordon has returned with Murder In The First, a melodramatic docudrama more-or-less based on the true story of an inmate at Alcatraz on trial for murdering another prisoner.  And, yes, it contains fabrications. 

Murder in the First, a production of The Directors Company on view through July 1 at the 59E59 theater complex, is the second version of the story to be penned by Mr. Gordon.  The first was a screenplay for a 1995 movie by the same title that starred Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, and Gary Oldman.  You can see the screenwriter’s mind at work as the scenes alternate among the side-by-side sets:  a prison cell, a courtroom, and a law office. 

What Mr. Gordon has given us is an old-fashioned thumping courtroom drama, in which a young attorney is defending his client, Willie Moore (an excellent performance by Chad Kimball), against a first-degree murder charge for slitting the throat of a fellow inmate with a sharpened spoon, in front of 300 eyewitnesses no less.   

The attorney, Henry (well-played by British actor Guy Burnet, making his U. S. theater debut), decides the only way he can win his case it to turn the tables and essentially put Alcatraz itself on trial.  The prison and its warden are as much to blame, he says, for placing the previously non-violent Moore into a “psychological coma” through a three-year regimen of solitary confinement, starvation, and torture that ended just prior to the murder.

The plot unfolds in predictable ways as Henry takes on “the system,” defying all efforts by his boss, his girlfriend, his brother, the FBI, and some hired thugs to silence him.  Like I said…melodrama. 

Still, Gordon knows how to write scenes that can get your adrenaline pumping and stir up your sense of righteous indignation.  Chad Kimball breathes authenticity into the character of Willie, a victim of endless cruelty who wants little more from life than to have a friend he can talk to, and it is not hard to sympathize with him.  As Henry, Guy Burnett brings the quality of a young James Stewart voicing the common man’s call for justice.

Other standouts in the cast of 15 are Robert Hogan as the warden, Thomas Ryan as the fair-minded judge, and Joseph Adams as a syndicated radio reporter/personality who latches onto the story in order to build up his listening audience.  

I’ve also got to tip my hat to the set design by Mark Nayden, who makes wonderful use of the very small performance space; there is a sense of solidity to each of the contiguous sets that in other hands would have been merely suggested.   Director Michael Parva also smartly uses the balcony and some of the seats in the audience in order to add extra dimensionality and a sense of here-and-now immediacy to the proceedings. 

I do need to advise that the story that unfolds before us is, indeed, far removed from what took place during the actual 1941 case.  The truth is rather more complicated, if less satisfying from a dramatic perspective.   If you care to look it up, the character played by Mr. Kimball was actually named Henry (or Henri) Young. All I'll say here is, you don't always get to pick your ideal "poster child" for the cause you are promulgating.  

Still, if you are a fan of courtroom dramas, and understand that “truth” is a relative term in the theater, head on over to 59E59 and Murder In The First, where you are in for a rousing good time.

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