Murder in the First
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 2, 2012
The writer Dan Gordon, with whom I share no relation, is no stranger to adapting screenplays for the theater. Following stage versions of the films Rain Man and Terms of Endearment (which ran in London) and the original Holocaust-based bio-drama Irena’s Vow (which ran on Broadway), Gordon’s newest venture is Murder in the First, a stage play of his 1995 courtroom drama which starred Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater.
One wonders why. Michael Parva’s production, now playing through July 1 at 59E59's Theater A, is an entertaining two-and-a-half hours for lovers of courtroom procedurals; at times, admittedly, it's even riveting. But despite a mostly game cast led by Chad Kimball and Guy Burnet, nothing about Gordon's adaptation makes a case for the work to stand as a stage play. It's not that it's bad—it's just unnecessary.
The London-born Burnet stars as Henry Davidson, a novice lawyer assigned to the case of Willie Moore (Kimball), who allegedly murdered a fellow inmate with a spoon shortly after being released from three years of solitary confinement at Alcatraz prison. Soon, Davidson, at the discouragement of his boss (John Fitzgibbon), girlfriend Mary (Larisa Polonsky), and brother Byron (John Stanisci), all lawyers, puts Alcatraz itself on trial, accusing its wardens (Robert Hogan and Jim Lorenzo) of the cruel and inhuman practices that led Willie to murder.
Willie is the classic wronged hero for whom everyone wants to root, despite having copped to murder, and the incredibly affable Kimball has the audience on his side from the very beginning. Perhaps he should be less lovable—this is an admitted murderer, after all—or perhaps not; either way, Kimball is giving a very strong, charismatic performance, his most nuanced to date, and that includes his bizarre, tick-driven, Tony-nominated work in the musical Memphis.
He does falter, however, in reconciling the character’s occasionally extreme behavior, at one point attempting to grope Mary, and then masturbating in front of her when she resists his advances. (This is Gordon’s fault, however; the scene is completely out of the blue, no matter how sex-starved Willie says he is).
Burnet, with a believable American dialect, is very much his equal, delivering a surprisingly fiery, if a bit bland here and there, performance as the still-green lawyer who thinks he can make a difference. Hogan, Lorenzo, and Fitzgibbon are strong as the classic slimy villains, with Joseph Adams believably portraying an opportunistic newspaper man.
Gordon and Parva, who worked together on Irena’s Vow, do little to suggest that Murder in the First needs to be a play, using a handful of cinematic techniques—most notably short scenes which fade in and out, melodramatic musical underscoring (designed by Quentin Chiappetta), and a voiceover explaining “what happened to…” during the final moments—to tell the story. Mark Nayden’s multiple settings make excellent use of the stage space, though Tristan Raines’ costumes seem more like 2012 versions of what 1940s costumes resemble.
Judging by the collectively gasping audience’s reaction, Murder in the First does have an audience; most likely, I believe, it’s the Law and Order crowd. I find myself in that camp, but unlike the people around me, I didn’t think it was a particularly satisfying afternoon. I could have just rented the movie.