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Reggie Rose redeemed 

Superior script gets its day in court

When Scott Ellis explored the idea of bringing Twelve Angry Men to Broadway, he looked at the adaptation of Reginald Rose's screenplay that has been a staple in community and regional theaters for nearly 50 years. He asked if TV icon Richard Thomas could play Juror #8, the role Henry Fonda stamped as his in an onscreen face-off against Lee J. Cobb.

But Ellis thought the script sucked when he read it -- and Thomas was already committed to Democracy, Michael Frayn's new play, and unavailable.

So Ellis went right ahead and directed the Broadway premiere of Twelve Angry Men at the Roundabout Theatre in 2004. You see, the script was so bad that it roused Ellis's suspicion before he OK'd it for a staged reading.

"I knew that Harold Pinter had directed a production in London," Ellis explains. "So I knew that Harold Pinter would not have directed this particular script. I tracked down the London script, which was the script that Reginald Rose actually wrote and adapted from the film, which is a terrific script. It's always done with an intermission, and I did the reading with an intermission. Then I chose to take the intermission out, because I wanted the audience to feel trapped in that room just like those 12 men were trapped in the room. And I think it makes a big difference."

Pressed for details, Ellis said the script that Roundabout premiered in 2004 had never been performed in America before. But the Rose adaptation -- the previous adaptation was by a different writer, Ellis says -- will be the official version after the tour ends.

Enter Richard Thomas.

You can see how well the new script works this week at Belk Theater, where Thomas is starring in Twelve Angry Men as Juror #8 through Sunday. On the short end of the jury's 11-1 vote on the first ballot of a murder case, #8 takes on the Herculean task of winning the rest of the jury over to his side -- acquittal -- by insisting that the prosecution's evidence be carefully scrutinized.

Thomas actually has more star power than his Broadway counterpart, Boyd Gaines -- or Philip Bosco, Juror #3 and Gaines' antagonist. It was actually Bosco, rather than Gaines, who drew Tony Award attention in the 2004-05 season, snagging a Best Actor nomination.

"In the tour, you have to get a name," says Ellis. "But I was still very careful on that. Richard Thomas is a great actor. Richard Thomas is right for this role. It's sort of the heart of the piece. He loves the show; he's passionate about it. So that was exciting, because I wasn't just putting Van Johnson in the touring company of Twelve Angry Men."

Like their courtroom brethren, jury room dramas work best in print or onscreen -- where the camera cuts from one actor to another, generating tension and speed. Ellis says his most daunting challenge was solving the riddle of how you put 12 actors onstage who are supposedly sitting around a jury table. The director didn't just want them to be visible: They had to be active, dynamic, yet still believable, and the audience needed to focus on the story.

Without the camera, Ellis actually found a different story.

"When you watch the film," he points out, "so much of it is on Lee J. Cobb and Henry Fonda. That's the story. Well, onstage, you really see 12 individual people, and they're all even. They're working as a group. And that's what makes the play, not better than the film, just different enough to have a reason to do it."

Another call that Ellis felt he had to make: Should he update the story to the present day? He looked at a 1997 Showtime TV production scripted by Rose before reaching his verdict. There a woman judge instructs the jury, and the jury is made up of different races.

"I don't care if they were black, Hispanic, or what -- they were 12 men!" Ellis protests. "That would never happen today, and that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago. So I just thought, 'You know what? I'm going to keep it in the '50s. I'm going to keep it in the exact same year he wrote it.'"

There was no DNA technology in 1954. Fewer rogue prosecutors.

"Things are not that different," Ellis counters. "You still lock a door, you stay in a room until there is a consensus of Guilty or Not Guilty. So that hasn't changed. There is still race involved. All the things they talk about -- sadly -- have not really changed very much in our society."

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