By: David Sheward
Turning A Time to Kill, the John Grisham page-turner and star-stuffed 1996 film, into a theatrical version was probably a sound financial decision. The box office may flourish based on the original author’s reputation as a bestselling tale spinner, but the results onstage are as shallow and showy as a below-average episode of a TV procedural.
The story is manipulative and melodramatic. In early-1980s Mississippi where racism stubbornly lingers, Carl Lee Hailey, an African-American, is on trial for deliberately gunning down the two white men who brutally raped his 10-year-old daughter. Small-time street lawyer Jake Brigance takes on Carl Lee’s case against ambitious district attorney Rufus R. Buckley who plans to use the resultant publicity to fuel a campaign for governor. Grisham and Rupert Holmes, the author of this adaptation, attempt to maneuver the audience into commiserating with Carl Lee, even though it’s clear he planned the crime and was not legally out of his mind as he carried it out, despite the insanity plea Jake enters. Grisham’s hook is placing his defendant in a seemingly impossible fix and then having the idealistic defense lawyer get him out of it through a clever legal technicality. There are also themes of racial injustice, but they’re given an easy once-over by Holmes, whose script resembles a screenplay with numerous short scenes and multiple locations facilitated by James Noone’s constantly revolving set.
Director Ethan McSweeny keeps the action moving, but, despite the obvious efforts of the authors and a large cast, the characters fail to generate any sympathy. All are calculating, with the possible exception of Jake, who seems to be a pawn of just about everyone else including Carl Lee. It doesn’t help that Sebastian Arcelus lacks charisma and that the strongest reason for casting him as Jake appears to be that he has a strong resemblance to Matthew McConaughey, who played the role in the movie. John Douglas Thompson, who has given impressive performances Off-Broadway as Macbeth, Othello, and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, has searing dramatic moments as Carl Lee, while the magnificent Tonya Pinkins is reduced to standing to the side and looking stricken as Lee’s long-suffering wife.
Former senator Fred Dalton Thompson and Tom Skerritt, actors with mostly film and TV credits, are tentative in their respective roles of a folksy judge and Jake’s rascally alcoholic mentor, while reliable stage vets Patrick Page, John Procaccino, and Lee Sellars bring solidity and conviction to their supporting turns. Ashley Williams, in her Broadway debut as Jake’s Ivy League intern, comes across as an entitled brat.
If you’re bored with watching courtroom drama on TV and can afford to blow a couple hundred bucks, you might want to take in A Time to Kill, but, for anyone with higher standards, this show would more appropriately be called Killing Time.
Opened Oct. 20 for an open run. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission. $69.50-132. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Carol Rosegg