It's a trial all right.
Now on stage at the New Theatre, Shirley Lauro's Clarence Darrow's Last Trial takes a long time to bring to life the minor last chapter of a major life in law. The play actually had a snazzy buzz before its world premiere in Coral Gables last week, having been a finalist for the New American History Play Prize in 2001 and also having been the subject of prestigious readings and workshops at the Actors Studio. The mind reels at the casts that have tried the script for size, including Rip Torn, Tovah Feldshuh, and Lois Nettleton. Maybe it was better in workshop, or maybe it's been workshopped to death. Who knows? There is certainly nothing terribly wrong with Rafael de Acha's stage direction or with his cast, which boasts entertaining performances by John Felix, John Bixler, Ricky J. Martinez, Susan Dempsey, and others. But the piece is at best mildly amusing, overlong middlebrow fare, peppered with fine acting but nowhere nearly as satisfying as your basic Law & Order rerun. Or even JAG.
The real-life Darrow was perhaps the greatest trial lawyer in this nation's history. He provided the basis for Inherit the Wind, the Broadway warhorse about the celebrated evolution v. creationism "Monkey Trial" in which Darrow battled the formidable prowess of William Jennings Bryan. Darrow's defense of the infamous killers Leopold and Loeb also has inspired its share of plays and movies. The public's thirst for courtroom dramas seems unquenchable -- witness the unlikely success of Twelve Angry Men currently on Broadway. So perhaps Lauro had good reason to choose the end of Darrow's career as the starting point of a new play.
Clarence Darrow's Last Trial
New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables
Written by Shirley Lauro. Directed by Rafael de Acha. With John Felix, John Bixler, Susan Dempsey, Jenny Levine, Ricky J. Martinez, Angie Radosh, Bill Schwartz, and Tara Vodihn. Through February 20. 305-443-5909.
The setup is promising. In 1932 the legendary lawyer is 76 years old, strapped for cash, and unable to pay his doctor's bill of $800. Unexpectedly he is offered $30,000 up front to take a murder case in Hawaii. A champion of the underdog for most of his life, Darrow here assumes the defense of a white man accused of murdering a Hawaiian in a racially charged atmosphere of bigotry and injustice. Darrow and his wife Ruby pack up and leave Chicago for Honolulu to meet the young Pearl Harbor U.S. Navy officer who, along with his socialite mother-in-law, killed a native thug who may have raped his wife. The pulse quickens, adrenaline flows, there are surprises in store, and the old dog may yet have a few tricks up his sleeve.
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Not so fast, actually. There is real historical interest in the case, which may have been the beginning of what is now accepted as a defense of temporary insanity. But the exposition in Lauro's script is creaky to the point of incompetence. Not just the stilted conversations between husband and wife, but also the endless, repetitious meetings between Darrow and the fictitious prosecutor Naniloa Whitfield Chan are enough to try the patience of any jury. Then there is the detail that, in point of fact, there is no jury on stage. The conceit of having the lawyers address the audience as if they were the jury is fine, but in this instance it simply comes off as artificial and distancing. Of course more profound words might help pull this off, but Lauro's inelegant script seldom approaches the historical Darrow's own eloquence.
Rich Simone's set is effective, initially two big bookshelves and a set of windows upstage, later a more open space representing the Honolulu courtroom. It works, save when Darrow reflects and sits at a small table upstage left and his face is blocked by the podium downstage center, so that the audience in effect misses his performance. Estela Vrancovich's period costumes are appropriate without being flashy, and Michael Foster's stark lighting is everything one could want in the circumstances.
John Felix is fine as Darrow, especially once the initial exposition is out of the way. His is a vocally nuanced, almost touching performance that might be improved only by patience: This actor's face often is vastly more eloquent than the words he must speak. He should be allowed more moments of stillness and silence. As the accused killer, John Bixler is at once dangerously attractive and intense, though a touch of evil near the end would be welcome. That he and Jennie Levine, who plays the accused lieutenant's wife, never feel right as a couple is probably justified given the future of their relationship in the script; but in both cases there is room for character growth in Act Two that the pair and their director have not explored. As the standard-issue, wealthy mother-in-law, Angie Radosh might have gone beyond the single note she sounds. But she can't really be faulted for not finding it.
Best of all is Ricky J. Martinez in the potentially offensive part of the native reporter Tommy Lou. Over-the-top yet somehow improbably moving, here is an actor sinking his teeth into a role and nearly convincing you it's well written. Tara Vodihn has a tougher time portraying the mixed-race prosecuting attorney, largely because it is nearly impossible to make something out of the ridiculously didactic trial scene that takes up most of Act Two. In the thankless role of Darrow's wife Ruby, Susan Dempsey bravely brings to life some of Lauro's deadliest dialogue and almost raises the tone of the script. As the psychiatrist Dr. David Stein, on the other hand, William Schwartz sinks to the right level and creates little more than a caricature from one of those "very special episodes" when sitcoms try to get serious. The cheap, facile humor, it must be said, was a relief on opening night.