On the face of it, 12 Angry Men appears to be the least cinematic of all classic films. Eleven men sit at a table like a white-collar lynch mob. Their rush to condemn to death a minority youth who has been charged with his father's murder is checked by an architect who wants to talk about the case. What's so visual about talk? But to see the current, competent stage adaptation at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is to realize how cinematic Lumet's film actually is. The Rep's Twelve Angry Men delivers a 105-minute master class in the variances between stage and screen.
Just one of a dozen examples: In the movie, after a lengthy discussion about the unique handle on the switchblade knife murder weapon, Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) quietly reaches into his pocket, produces an exact copy and thrusts it into the table next to the murder weapon. The two knives share a close-up; Fonda is barely even in the shot. But in the stage version, a viewer can hardly see either knife handle. In order to draw the viewer's focus, Juror 8 (Jeff Talbott), rather than quietly reach into his pocket, must raise the knife over his head with all the inflated melodrama of the Masked Avenger.
So it is throughout the evening. Without a camera to guide our eyes, tiny moments that keep the film moving (the tick-tack-toe game between two bored jurors) are lost. The impact of others (the re-enacted stabbing) is diminished. We have to be impressed by a script in which the viewer learns every aspect of the case without ever having been in the courtroom. But in the theater, where words assume preeminence, this point-by-point reiteration of the trial is exposed as a series of straw dogs that are set up simply to be knocked down.
Although a stage version of Reginald Rose's film script has been available since 1960, the Rep is mounting the newly revised adaptation that enjoyed tremendous success when it debuted on Broadway in 2004. The script is credited to Rose (who died in 2002), but in fact there has been considerable rewriting, often to compensate for the lack of close-ups and reaction shots. In the film, for instance, an impassioned monologue by Lee J. Cobb builds to a stunning close-up of the top of Cobb's head. You can't do that on the stage, so new spell-it-out dialogue has been added, and not happily, to bring the speech to a close.
Director Martin Platt is ambivalent about the film. On the one hand he distances himself from it by reversing the order in which the jurors sit. But he mostly has cast (and garbed) his actors in the images of their screen counterparts. James Anthony's genial housepainter and the patrician stockbroker of Richmond Hoxie are especially adept at allowing us to forget the actors who played those same roles in the film, but other members of this generally solid cast — despite their own talents — do not succeed in shaking the shadows of their predecessors.
It may be that I'm making too much of these comparisons. Perhaps lots of Rep theatergoers, especially student audiences, will see Twelve Angry Men for the first time and become engaged by the compelling story; those first-timers couldn't care less about the film. But for those who know 12 Angry Men well, an evocation of cherished movie memories might be the most edifying part of attending this crash course in the limitations of theater.