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October 21, 2013
Bway's A Time to Kill: Critics Reach a Verdict

full-castYou’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie, now should you go see the play? Critics weighed in on the new Broadway drama, “A Time to Kill”, which opened last night (Sunday, Oct. 20), at the Golden Theater. The tale of a Southern black man’s legal defense for killing two white hicks who raped his daughter, adapts the first (and many say best) novel by John Grisham, who went on to pen “The Firm”, “The Chamber” and other blockbuster books about lawyers fighting an uphill battle against quirks in the justice system.

Rupert Holmes, who penned “Drood”, “Accomplice” and “Curtains”, knows a thing or two about mystery-thrlllers, even though it’s a dramatic format that has had very little success on Broadway over the past few decades (possibly because police procedurals are ubiquitous on the tube). So will “A Time to Kill”, staged by Ethan McSweeny and featuring Fred Dalton Thompson as the judge, Sebastian Arcelus as the defense lawyer and Patrick Page as the prosecuting attorney, and John Douglas Thompson as the defendant, get to spend a lot of time on Broadway? Here’s how some of the critics reacted:

Bloomberg writer Jeremy Gerard calls the drama “satisfying if unsettling” while noting that the story has been streamlined “to the point of flash cards” with characterizations that are “comic-strip thin.” He also wonders about the director’s “stilted” staging and “drawn-out scene changes.” However, he closes his *** review by adding, “the twists and surprises of Grisham’s efficient revenge-tragedy come through, and the actors are good company for a couple of hours; I never was bored.”

Associated Press critic Mark Kennedy was. He calls the production a “puzzling” mashup of Grisham’s book and the movie version that is unable “to sustain any sense of drama.” As “eighteen scenes whip by” with long pauses in between, the evening becomes “tiresome and clunky.” Kennedy liked Page being “at his glorious best,” and notes that Ashley Williams, as Arcelus’ pert assistant, shows “great potential for comedy” but is here stuck in a “tissue-thin” role.

Variety’s Marilyn Stasio ponders the show’s “distinctly dated feel” and gripes that Arcelus’ defense lawyer, in his tilting against windmills, “seems to float above the fray, not innocent enough for his time, not cynical enough for ours.” She does praise the “wonderfully slick, unabashedly opportunistic district attorney” played “with evil brilliance by Patrick Page,” as well as the set design’s versatility. However, her overall review feels dismissive, especially in her sense that the show’s nudge towards timelessness isn’t the same as making it timely.

Wishy-washy, too, is New York Times scribe Charles Isherwood, who calls the “workmanlike” play “efficient but hardly pulse racing” and “competent but bland.” He also plays the dreaded television card: “In a Broadway season quickly beginning to gather its own steam,” he writes, “this mechanical legal procedural cannot, I’m afraid, even outdo the competition in constant rotation on TV.” Not helping is Arcelus’ choice “to underplay the emotional manipulation” needed to sway a jury in the final scenes. Prosecutor Page fares far better – but only if you don’t compare him to Kevin Spacey in the movie version.

Thom Geier, in Entertainment Weekly, feels that the producers are even pushing the TV/film angle by choosing such a popular book and casting “Law & Order’s” Fred Thompson as the judge. “All that’s missing,” writes Geier, “is the sonic `cha-ching’ between scenes.” This approach has its ups and downs, since procedurals are an “enormously reassuring” comfort-food kind of entertainment, however the story ends up short shrifting any character development. Like many other critics, Geier enjoys Tom Skerritt’s role as a helpful old legal mentor and strongly appreciates John Douglas Thompson and Tonya Pinkins as the accused and his worried wife. Still, Geier musters only a C+ grade for the show, even though he says it “conveys a mostly satisfying sense of justice being served.”

John Douglas Thompson – “one of those extraordinary stage actors the public has mostly never heard of” – gets singled out for praise in Michael Dale’s Broadway World review, as does “the exceptional Patrick Page.” The play itself is again afforded lukewarm praise. Dale compliments the first act’s mix of exposition, “dark humor” and “kicker curtain scene” but finds act two more “problematic” because the audience is assumed to be on the side of the jury finding Thompson’s character not guilty by any means necessary, rather than having a pitched, even battle with justice prevailing.” Still, Dale appreciates the “tense and energetic production” and “tight ensemble that glosses over the rough patches.”

In her *** review for USA Today, Elysa Gardner notes that prosecutor Page has the audience “eating out of his hand,” which works fine for a “crowd-pleasing” show that lacks nuance in its “brisk, bold-faced approach” yet is “more sharply drawn” than the 1996 film. Also, defendant Thompson’s performance proves moving in its “anguish, rage, obstinance and dignity.”

Newsday’s Linda Winer agrees about Thompson but is less generous towards the show, which she calls “two and a half hours of competent acting and monotonous storytelling” that is “full of standard-issue good ol' boys and cracker sociopaths and ceiling fans and decent white folks who save the good black people while braving the angry Klan.”

Daily News scribe Joe Dziemianowicz musters only two stars for his review, in which he jokingly retitles “A Time to Kill” into “A Time to Think About Errands I Need to Run.” Main characters “lack depth” and secondary ones possess only one character trait. Dziemianowicz compares the show to last season’s flop, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” saying the piece feels like “a copy of a copy.”

Vulture critic Scott Brown complains that the material brings up intriguing issues of justice that are never properly explored. Instead, “director Ethan McSweeny treats us to burning crosses (but only one barely glimpsed Klansman), projected footage of bloody Southern sunsets and pointy hoods, a turntable courtroom to shake up the speechifyin’, and bluesy musical underscoring so twangily on-the-nose, you’ll be transported straight to half-off-riblets-night at Applebee’s.” Ha!

A bit more forgiving, AM New York’s Matt Windman gives the show two and a half stars and says it “delivers exactly what you’d expect: a pulp and plot-heavy, old-fashioned courtroom drama” that is a “cheesy but crowd-pleasing vehicle.”

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Written by: David Lefkowitz
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