NEW YORK — A paperback copy of John Grisham’s novel “A Time to Kill” will set you back less than $10. The DVD of the film will cost a few bucks more. The new adaptation on Broadway? Tickets at the box office start at $70.
Save your money.
A puzzling version of Grisham’s story which mashes up elements from both the book and the Matthew McConaughey-led movie opened Sunday at the John Golden Theater with an inability to sustain any sense of drama.
That’s pretty unforgivable since the story deals with the rape of a child, a double murder and a death row court case — all against the sounds of the KKK and NAACP protesting outside the Southern town’s courthouse.
But director Ethan McSweeny and a talented cast that includes standouts Patrick Page, Tom Skerritt and Fred Dalton Thompson can’t seem to get any traction with a story about the case of a black father who kills the white men who raped his daughter.
Perhaps we’ve all watched too many “Law & Orders” and are exhausted by listening to lawyers stipulate to this or object to that. Or perhaps we’ve seen this trial before, and there are no mysteries. Or perhaps the incessantly rotating set by James Noone takes all the air out of it.
Eighteen scenes whip by, each triggering a twist of the massive central turntable and a long pause with some ominous music as various props are arranged. It gets tiresome and clunky.
That also applies to the book, an adaptation by Rupert Holmes that simplifies the complex motives and emotions of the men and women in the book and film to the part of cartoons.
Stepping into the role of the seemingly overmatched defense attorney Jake Brigance is Sebastian Arcelus, who has a habit of adapting famous actors’ role onstage (he took over Will Ferrell’s part in “Elf the Musical”). Here he struggles to give nuance since he’s often the passive center of the script.
Page, his adversary, is at his glorious best, a smooth-talking and cocky politician with a gloriously Shakespearian bass voice. Skerritt nicely pulls off a charming disgraced and drunken lawyer and Thompson is a sure-footed judge, perfectly cast.
Ashley Williams, making her Broadway debut as Brigance’s smarty-pants aide, shows confidence and great potential for comedy, but the role is tissue-thin. John Douglas Thompson as the jailed father balances uneasily between being wily and a simpleton.
Holmes has his choice of material from both book and film and so some choices are odd. Scenes between Thompson and his wife (a great Tonya Pinkins) seem true and honest, but having the newly freed man rush back to court to celebrate with Brigance is a little corny.
Holmes includes a movie scene that features a KKK member with a suitcase bomb, but in this version the KKK don’t kill Brigance’s dog or attack Brigance’s aide. A huge burning cross with real flames is as unsubtle as, well, a huge burning cross.
There is no jury in this version — it’s us. Act 2 is the trial itself and the spinning set goes into high gear. The lawyers and witnesses address us in the audience seats, but unlike Holmes’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” the final outcome is then taken out of our hands.
Nonetheless, here’s the verdict: If you have time to kill, pick up the novel or catch the movie.