Improvising justice

The Jury Room

By C.B. Gilford
Directed by Alexandra Carter
The Riant Theater
Non-union production (closed)
Review by Adam Cooper

From a more conservative age with less-demanding audiences comes The Jury Room, a 1950s-style courtroom drama that amounts to a poor person's Twelve Angry Men. The action centers on a group of modestly eclectic jurors assigned to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant in a murder trial. While naturalistic in style, the play invokes the fantastical element of using testimony-based improvisation to discern character motivation and explain sequences of events in an effort to solve the murder.

After most of the unnamed jurors make plain their belief in the guilt of niece Julie Fletcher of the murder of her rich uncle Adrian Fletcher, a vote is taken and only Actress (Paulette Munoz) believes in Julie's innocence. Jurors become annoyed and impatient with each other and complain about lost time and money. But Actress, with the help of Young Man (Anthony Del Corvo), persuades them to deconstruct and reconstruct the murder scenario using improvisation. Conveniently, each juror plays a certain role in the Fletcher family saga in a sequence of scenes, each of which enlightens jurors not only on possible or improbable motives and actions, but also to their own biases. The jurors become engaged actors and directors as characterizations are critiqued and replayed. The mounting scenework and analysis leads to the solution of the murder mystery.

While postmodern courtroom dramas tend to come off as arrogant and over-baked, with self-righteous characters, this play wanders in the direction of innocence and almost childlike silliness. The thinly drawn characters unbelievably participate in risqué theater exercises to disprove what they angrily believe. The power of their scenework is so intense that they supposedly expose their darkest biases and secrets. Though this action may suggest a surface exploration of the idea of courtroom as theater, it leads to shallow and quite subjective analysis of the murder at hand. At play's end, it is the power of theater and not reason that miraculously exposes the truth.

Clunkiness of the text also contributes to the play's dated feel. Characters utter predictable lines that reveal little change over time. Blocks of exposition are unloaded with the obvious mechanical purpose of informing the audience. As a dishonest device to move the story forward, information such as other murder suspects is not mentioned until the second act. The explanation for not declaring a hung jury is weak. The hints at romance between the Actress and Young Man come off as manufactured and hokey.

The production itself was at times funny but played into the script's shortcomings. Performances were universally presentational and unadventurous. Direction (Alexandra Carter) inspired little risk or originality in a production that was in need of both. In a theatrical conceit, the improvisation scenes were played to the audience so that the jurors watched only backs. The simple set (uncredited) suggested a theater within a theater. Costumes (uncredited) helped define the characters as modern, while the sound design (uncredited) suggested a throwback to 1960. While mildly amusing and modestly engaging, performances of The Jury Room are best left to the classroom.

(Also featuring Beth Ashley, Gregorry Bastien, Margarita Bejerano, Raul de la Torre, Carmel de Rosa, Alana Gans, Christian Irizarry, Monica Kester, Bhavana Kundanmal, Chase Nosworthy, Richard Stroili, Calia Van Dyk, Sheila Vasan, and Alison Weiss.)

 Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 Adam Cooper