A Split Verdict

My earliest impressions of the American judicial system came from listening to earnest civics teachers and from watching reruns of Perry Mason; combined, they convinced me that courtrooms hold more drama than any Broadway stage, with lawyers playing for life-and-death stakes as they heroically defended the nation's civil liberties (this was the Sixties, after all). Later my three experiences as a juror, and more recently the televised Year of O.J., made me realize that the real action takes place behind the scenes: Vital evidence that Perry would have shoved in district attorney Hamilton Burger's face gets excluded by pretrial motions, prospective jurors undergo examinations previously reserved for criminal suspects, and plea bargains script a defendant's fate before the first strike of the judge's gavel. Two legal dramas appearing on local stages avoid a courtroom setting altogether in favor of a law office and a jury room, respectively, resting their theatrical cases on prime exhibitions of spellbinding acting and incisive direction, both of which ultimately defeat the many objections raised by their scripts.

Peter Sagal's Denial, at the Pope Theatre Company, tests the strength of personal convictions more than it does the letter of the law, providing a fascinating character study that is compromised by an unbelievable, user-friendly ending. Court TV favorite and powerhouse civil liberties lawyer Abigail Gersten (Lauren Klein) is enjoying the view from her grand corner office -- until her well-publicized talents, as well as her Jewish heritage, bring her an unwanted client in the form of mild-mannered engineering professor Bernard Cooper (Dan Leonard). Cooper has become linked to political splinter groups through his books and newsletters, which denounce the Holocaust as fiction. Facing prosecution for inciting hate crimes, the genial racist turns to Abby in the hope that she can keep him out of prison -- or at least land him on Nightline.

Repulsed by Cooper's politics but passionate about his First Amendment rights, Abby agrees to take his case, much to the confusion of her idolatrous secretary Stefanie (Lenore Pemberton) and the devout Jewish assistant district attorney Adam Ryberg (Mark Gerrard), who will face off against her. Part of Adam's strategy in trying Cooper involves bringing in internationally revered death camp survivor Noah Gomrowitz (Alan Mixon) to refute the professor's claims.

In a series of pretrial meetings, the intriguing first act examines each character's beliefs. First comes Abby, who, confident of her intellect and unyielding in her interpretation of the law, is convinced something is right simply because she believes it to be so. Klein dominates the stage, giving full weight to her character's much-touted courtroom theatrics while at the same time conveying the loneliness of a solitary woman who saves her passion for the law. Leonard's multifaceted performance makes the defendant a fascinating puzzle, with his Cooper alternating between crackpot prophet and savvy media manipulator. Recent law school grad Adam is hopelessly outmatched by the two; accordingly, Gerrard rushes through his speeches with a wavering voice, eliciting sympathy for the boyish prosecutor. While Ryberg enters into his first major battle armed with only an untested moral viewpoint, Gomrowitz's outlook is deeply colored by horrible experiences. Mixon's intelligent performance shows the vulnerability beneath a man who has transformed himself into a living icon of the Holocaust.

Almost as if someone had reminded Sagal at intermission that his play revolved around a court case, the script shifts gears in the second act, moving from deliberate character-driven scenes to a fast-moving legal whodunit. In a convincing but brief performance, Walter Zukovski appears as a surprise potential witness; his information questions both Gomrowitz's memories and Cooper's true motives, quickly leading to revised strategies and a disappointing resolution of the case. Unwilling to risk audience disapproval by portraying his heroine as either a loser in court or a victorious defender of racism, Sagal has Abby go against her established character, dealing with Cooper outside of the law. This regrettable plot development causes Sagal's construction of hot buttons and emotional levers to fall apart like an out-of-whack Rube Goldberg device.

Denial was originally presented in 1995 at Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre, one of many productions the author's numerous plays have received on the nation's regional and alternative stages. In addition to being a playwright, Sagal has received a McKnight Foundation fellowship for his screenwriting and has published articles in the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. Certainly the basic plot of Denial displays a journalist's nose for newsworthy topics, and its crowd-pleasing ending betrays a screenwriter's concern with the box office. But the script's messy second act fails to demonstrate Sagal's playwriting talents. Director Louis Tyrrell's swift pacing propels the play through the first act's sometimes pedantic constitutional debate, pausing along the way to establish character, as when Abby works late into the night after having been abandoned by her firm's clerks as a politically incorrect pariah. Michael Amico's ultratasteful office setting deftly defines Abby's world, and Jim Fulton's lighting design subliminally accentuates the play's rising tensions. Despite Denial's flawed ending, this topnotch production refuses to settle for anything less than supplying its audiences with thoroughly engrossing theater.

In a production that features a more even tone but slightly less entertainment value, Area Stage's South Florida premiere of Joe Sutton's Voir Dire captures the real-life essence of jury duty: Although you meet and get to know some interesting people, the drama of the situation is often diluted by tedium. Taking its title from the legal term for an essential part of jury selection, the play opens in New York City with a brief prelude as six prospective jurors testify about their ability to weigh evidence impartially in the case of a black public school principal arrested for possession of crack cocaine. Having been absent from his post for more than 100 days during the school year and unable to stay awake during testimony, the unseen defendant seems destined for conviction -- that is, until his defense team deals the race card (sound familiar?), asking the multiethnic jury to believe that he is the victim of a racist police frameup.

Skipping over the actual trial, the play's main action begins when the sequestered jurors begin deliberations. Their hopes for a quick verdict are fueled by a growing impatience with living out of a suitcase, but those same hopes are threatened by the jurors' emotional baggage: Timid Hispanic housewife Teresa (Madeline Fuste) barely speaks as she struggles with both her foreman duties and her vicious ulcer; the jury's only man, Michael (Paul Tei), believes he has a special understanding of the law thanks to his attorney friends; Gloria (Kelly Balzli) hides a secret that makes her think she is the only white person on the jury able to understand racism; Debra (Carey Hart), a black woman with a master's degree and a strong social conscience, sees her race on trial alongside the defendant; Faith (Cynthia Nalley), a well-heeled newcomer to the city from Nebraska, is anxious to bring Middle American values to her new home; and Isobel (Ellen Rae Littman) is a kvetching New Yorker who views jury duty as just one more inconvenience of city life.

Frustrating any audience involvement in the defendant's guilt or innocence, Voir Dire doles out trial facts in disconnected spurts while the jurors gnaw on social issues and testimony with equal passion. Playwright Sutton is putting the entire American legal system on trial, hammering away particularly at the myth of truly impartial jurors, a theme that Tei and Balzli forcefully debate as they spar about each other's fitness to lead the group to consensus. Fuste, as a mother who can't afford medical treatment, and Nalley, as a $70K-a-year perky yuppie, do their best to flesh out cultural stereotypes. Hart has the unenviable role of voicing the dramatist's unclear opinions about what constitutes the proper verdict for a member of a race that has already endured centuries of oppression; she manages to overcome murky political musings, fashioning a credible performance of a woman torn between her rational judgment and her instinctive sympathies. Freed from having to represent anything other than a character, Littman delights as a harried urbanite who just wants to go home and get on with her life.

Director John Rodaz wisely places Sutton's legal tirades in the background, concentrating instead on the experiences of the jurors, on their reactions to the evidence and to each other. He gets able assistance from Steve Shapiro, who provides suspenseful sound design, and from Kevin Arrow and Chris Delaney, whose inventive set divides Area's minuscule stage into two distinct locales -- the deliberation room and various hotel rooms. Even though a captivating cast and tight direction create an entertaining production at Area Stage, Sutton's disappointing script reduces this legal fable's chances for future appeal.

Denial.
Written by Peter Sagal; directed by Louis Tyrrell; with Lauren Klein, Lenore Pemberton, Alan Mixon, and Dan Leonard. Through May 25. For more information call 800-514-3837 or see "Calendar Listings."

Voir Dire.
Written by Joe Sutton; directed by John Rodaz; with Paul Tei, Madeline Fuste, Carey Hart, Cynthia Nalley, Ellen Rae Littman, and Kelly Balzli. Through June 1. For more information call 673-8002 or see "Calendar Listings.

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