Murder in the First

by Dan Gordon
Directed by Michael Parva
Featuring Chad Kimball, Guy Burnet, Harold Humson
The Directors Company and Invictus Theater Company
at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
June 6, 2012 — July 1, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 4, 2012

(L-R) Guy Burnet, Chad Kimball. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Drama inspired by actual events — and the final moments dictated to us, from a remove. I can’t at this point recall whether there is an actor on stage stating the final status of Alcatraz as a prison, a situation that occurs years after the final moments in this play-based-on-a-movie, or whether we are given these facts using a voice-over recording as we look at the bare stage, courtroom centrally located, as if a film’s final image over which the credits would scroll.

My not so positive feelings about another piece on Broadway that uses a similar post-theatrical-action summing up of a real life using a fictional character, are stirred up by some of this new piece.  I knew the terrific movie 1995 Murder in the First  before coming to theatre for this performance — a story of one prisoner’s mistreatment in extended solitary confinement, that leads to killing another prisoner, and the court case that is brought against the prisoner which is turned by the defense into an indictment of the conditions under which the prisoner was held for years before the crime. The screenwriter-turned-playwright appears to be engaged in adapting a number of movies for the stage over the past few years while, from my reading of his credits, this is Dan Gordon‘s first foray into adapting a screenplay of his own to the stage.  And while the dialogue often crackles here, the pivot, pivot, pivot from scene to scene in different sections of the stage cries out for some choices about staging and assessment about which scenes hold the emotional core of our attention in this very different kind of storytelling space.  Those scenes that vibrate with intensity, theatricality, power occur when our prisoner/defendant Willie (Chad Kimball) and his attorney Henry (Guy Burnet) hold the stage. The other scenes, given equal weight in this staging, are often staid and stolid reportage.

Our story timeline is the 1930s (in stories told to us) and 1940s (the events of our play) and 1960s (our  final voice over summing up giving the 1960s institutional update), when correctional facilities are in the hands of men seeking to control rather than reform. Willie Moore (Chad Kimball) stole five dollars as a poor kid, was sent to a prison from which he tried to escape, so then was sent to the infamous island prison Alcatraz and placed in solitary confinement for three years.  Willie, who has had 90 minutes of fresh air and no contact with other humans in those  years, kills a fellow inmate within minutes of joining the general population — psychotic break or irrational response to provocation, we never know for sure. Willie doesn’t remember doing this but doesn’t deny it, and is brought up on murder charges. The play-as-court-procedural begins, with a bit of soap opera (love life and past life of both Willie and others) thrown in for good measure.

Kimball is assigned young defense attorney Henry Davidson (Guy Burnet), a newly minted Harvard law grad, who has been assigned not to win but to learn from what is perceived to be a losing case.  We meet his female colleague Mary (Larisa Polonsky) who is also a love interest, and learn of  Henry’s fraught relationship with his corporate attorney brother Byron (John Stanisci).  This sibling relationship provides counter point for Willie’s story of his own sibling — Henry and his brother lost their parents when they were young, and with their family means Henry was sent off to boarding school.  He resents his older brother’s distance, but he knows he can join his corporate law firm if he is fired from Willie’s case.  Henry also tells of once stealing money from his brother, who punishes him and tells him not to do it again.  The parent-less Willie and his younger sister we learn are separated forever when Willie is sent to prison for stealing as a teen, and the young girl is sent off to foster placement. This is not the first time the parallel has been drawn between private school and foster care in fiction and fact in my experience — with the primary distinction being resources rather than behavior leading to one or the other.  The men bond, the case is tried, the institution found wanting and some years later finally closed.

Murder in the First has strong moments often undercut by, as my mother used to say of over-elaborate music, too many notes.  Here, a few too many characters, a few too many scenes, a final story chapter dictated to us, and a set design that pulls focus from the strongest elements of this production by placing them stage right when they could radiate from the center. Once the prison location (Willie’s prison cell) is moved to stage right and the center of the small playing area is dominated by the courtroom set, we see the philosophical and intellectual focus on the story, but the emotional impact of the core relationships suffer.  The judge keeps order, the prison officials testify, the young attorney finds his footing and gets the officials to admit their priority on control rather than human treatment, and the emotional energy is sucked out of the room. The judge and his gavel don’t always have to be center stage as they are in this production design (says this court researcher in a former life, who has spent years in courtrooms and courthouses all over the country).  Courts are inherently dramatic, and court cases are a story often begging to be told well.  In this play as presented in its current form we have love story, court case, sibling rivalry, social system, and two terrific male leads in an imbalanced mix.  While the court case drama marches on, the electric emotional air leaves the room whenever the Willie-Henry duo are not on stage.  Our story is Willie’s story, and to walk away from it several decades into the future to inform us of the year of Alcatraz’s closing is a cinematic choice not a theatrical one.

The most theatrical image of the play occurs in the first moments of the production as we encounter Willie in solitary confinement, in shadows, at the center of the stage with other prison characters looming above him.  Willie in lightless, soundless solitary confinement with prison officials discussing releasing him, finally, after three years in that location of the prison. Nothing that transpires for the ensuing two-plus hours is as visually riveting. Court cases and laws and entire fields of study in the corrections field focus on “conditions of confinement”.  Paring, focusing, finding the theatrical core would move this piece of theatre as theatre, holding that initial shadowy image as a standard, into another powerful level of storytelling.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 7, 2012)

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