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Doing justice to 'Angry Men'

Before NBC's "Law & Order" brought courtroom drama into viewers' living rooms, the 1950s teleplay "Twelve Angry Men" focused on the emotions of jurors debating their verdict in a trial.

When Americans tuned into Studio One on Sept. 20, 1954, they were invited into a dingy, colorless jury room, where 12 white men jabbed and argued with each other for 54 continuous minutes in a live, crackling melodrama, "in the best sense of that word," says actor Boyd Gaines.

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The Roundabout Theatre has resurrected the Reginald Rose play on Broadway, creating one of the surprise hits of the season.

During rehearsals, the cast - including Mr. Gaines - was worried. "We thought audiences would be expecting to see a museum piece, an artifact," he says. "But what we deliver is this ripping yarn, and they're all very surprised that they get so involved."

In "Twelve Angry Men," a teenage boy is accused of killing his father, and all the audience know is what it learns through the deliberations, primarily that the crime took place in a slum neighborhood, and that the accused had a troubled past.

"We're using the original text expanded by the playwright from the teleplay, but still keeping it set in 1954," Gaines explains, "and in those days, New York law restricted the jury pool, to keep the 'riff-raff' out of the court system. It was very racist. The playwright's notes indicate that there was a 90 percent chance that a jury would be all white males. Women could volunteer, but would not be called."

In the opening moments, 11 jurors are ready to convict; a guilty verdict would doom the boy to the electric chair. Only Gaines's character, Juror No. 8 - the characters remain nameless - expresses some doubt. "He never says the defendant is innocent, only that he has doubt, and he believes that expressing doubt can be a virtue, rather than surrendering to the prejudices of those who come in with absolute certainty that the son killed his father," says Gaines.

One of Juror No. 8's most vocal critics, Juror No.10, is portrayed by another Broadway veteran, Peter Friedman, who credits the writing with "keeping the ball aloft. The audience sees this rare view of the court system, where real prejudices get played out." Echoing Gaines, he adds, "I was concerned they wouldn't see us as fully developed characters, but it moves so intensely, that's never a problem. And because my character is so vile, in some ways, I didn't want him to be seen as a crackpot, someone easily dismissed. He keeps talking about 'those people.' "

The play's two virtues are its simplicity and its rapid pace - which keeps the audience hooked. In a time when live theater is often synonymous with commercially driven stunt casting, musicals built around a pop artist's hits, or the occasional British highbrow mindgame exercise, "Twelve Angry Men" reminds audiences what great dramatic theater can be.

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"The craftsmanship is uncanny," Gaines says. "The greatest strength of the writing is how he's captured group dynamics."

This rediscovery happens on both sides of the footlights.

"As actors, it's very special to us," Mr. Friedman says. "We rarely get to work in this kind of well-crafted ensemble piece."

Gaines, who has guest-starred on all three versions of the "Law & Order" franchise, points out that "those shows don't deal with the characters' personal lives, and neither does this play. There is this parallel track of revealing little bits about the jurors as you learn bits about the case. These procedural series dramas on television can trace their roots to this play."

Television in general owes much to the era in which "Twelve Angry Men" was first presented.

"We all got jobs in television in those days because we knew how to act live, to keep going, no matter what happened, just like on stage," recalls John Fiedler, who appeared in the original teleplay and went on to star with Henry Fonda in the Sidney Lumet film. "Television was all live, and it was all in New York," he says. "I'm not surprised people keep rediscovering this play. Something this good will always connect with an audience."

'Twelve Angry Men' runs at the Roundabout Theatre Company through Feb. 6, 2005.