Some theater snobs disdain television and actors who work in the medium. Of course, there's a lot of dreck on TV, but the tube employs many good actors and occasionally generates material that translates beautifully onstage. Case in point: 12 Angry Men, the current production at the Aronoff Center, featuring Richard Thomas and George Wendt.
Producers these days feel the need to put recognizable actors onstage to draw audiences to touring shows, especially if the show isn't a musical. Predictably, Thomas (John-Boy on The Waltons, 1972-77) and Wendt (Norm on Cheers, 1982-1993) draw applause individually as they file into Jury Room 2A with 10 others. But this production is about a tight ensemble of fine character actors. While Thomas' Juror No. 8, the principled architect who is at first the lone "not guilty" vote, is often the center of attention, each actor has a quickly sketched but vividly portrayed personality — a bully, an Eastern European immigrant, an elderly gentleman and so on.
Television is also the reason for these characters: 12 Angry Men began its life as a live broadcast "teleplay" by Reginald Rose in 1954, created for CBS Studio One. It was made into a film in 1957 (Henry Fonda played No. 8) and made the rounds at community theaters for years as a not-entirely-good script. Two years ago New York City's Roundabout Theatre presented a new, more tightly written script that became a hit, eventually the longest-running non-musical in the theater's history. That production is the one that's on tour.
Thomas (now 56) brings an earnest presence to a man who simply feels that there's "reasonable doubt" in the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing his father to death. His fellow jurors are ready to deliver a quick judgment in a death-penalty case, but he sows seeds of doubt and gradually brings them around to a perspective that rises above prejudices and preconceptions.
Wendt's foreman keeps order in the tempestuous deliberations, which are spiced with occasional bits of humor around the foibles of human nature. The show is 90 minutes without intermission. Every one is worth seeing. Grade: A
12 ANGRY MEN, presented by Broadway Across America at the Aronoff Center, continues through Sunday.