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Theater review: 'A Time to Kill'

Dennis King Published: October 31, 2013
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NEW YORK – Some stage adaptations of well-known movies can dazzle with clever stagecraft and revitalize the storytelling with the emotional immediacy of live performance. But some, such as the new theatrical version of “A Time to Kill,” can simply feel like gimmicky, monotonous retellings of already widely familiar source material.

Adapted from lawyer-author John Grisham’s 1989 bestselling novel and the taut, star-studded 1996 movie version (which gave Matthew McConaughey his breakout role), the new stage rendition of “A Time to Kill,” which opened recently at Broadway’s John Golden Theater, is competent but largely uninspired.

This whirly-gig production, which makes dizzying use of an onstage turntable to show varying perspectives of the courtroom drama, is directed with a confidant dash by Ethan McSweeny (Tony nominee for “The Best Man“) from a doggedly faithful script by Rupert Holmes, the former pop songwriter turned novelist and musical theater dynamo (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”). Perhaps not by accident, it comes along just as Grisham’s long-awaited “Sycamore Row,” follow-up to the original novel, is hitting bookshelves.

The latest in a recent flood of stage productions drawn from familiar books and movies, this production is rife with cultural and visual cues that hark back to its literary and cinematic roots. For instance, Sebastian Arcelus, who plays the firebrand defense attorney Jake Brigance, is a spitting image of McConaughey, right down to the cocky swagger and wavy hairdo. (Arcelus, by the way, also stepped into Will Ferrell’s pointy shoes in past seasons for “Elf the Musical”).

Grisham’s essential story – of the horrific rape of a young black girl by two unrepentant white crackers, the enraged revenge taken by the girl’s anguished father, and the showcase murder trial that follows – is recounted in mechanical, by-the-book fashion.

The setting is rife with sweltering Mississippi atmosphere – of whirring ceiling fans, KKK rallying cries and burning crosses, twangy roots music, stereotypical good ol’ boys and decent white folks braving sinister bigotry to champion good black folks. Certainly the novel’s issues of racism are still relevant, but the humid mechanics here feel somewhat dated.

The cast, starting with the rascally but noble Arcelus, is first-rate, even if the characters seem a bit pro forma. Patrick Page employs an unctuous smugness and booming, basso voice as the politically ambitious District Attorney Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey in the movie), and Tom Skerritt lends an appealing air of lushness, courtliness and Dixie dissipation to the part of disbarred lawyer Lucien Wilbanks.

As the stentorian, no-nonsense Judge Omar Noose, real-life politico and former “Law and Order” D.A. Fred Dalton Thompson brings some sober authority to the stage, although his casting smacks a bit of gimmickry. Ashley Williams, in the Sandra Bullock role as Jake’s smarty-pants legal aide, comes across as much too cutesy to be believed. And finally, Douglas Thompson as the avenging father is solid, but he’s in the unenviable role of competing with Samuel L. Jackson’s memorably soul-searing turn from the film.

Given that the movie plays in regular rotation on cable TV and Grisham’s follow-up novel is sure to ignite vivid memories of the book that launched his prolific writing career, it’s inevitable that this earnest play will suffer by comparison. The white-hot passions and controversies of the book and movie don’t spark to life in this competent, talky stage version, which simply lacks the freshness and urgency to earn it a favorable verdict.

- Dennis King