Review: ‘Murder in the First’ consistently smart

June 7, 2012 • Entertainment

This theater publicity image released by Karen Greco Public Relations shows Larisa Polonsky, left, and Guy Burnet during a performance of “Murder in the First,” in New York. (AP Photo/Karen Greco Public Relations, Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK (AP) — The two characters at the center of Dan Gordon’s engrossing play “Murder in the First” — a frightfully off-kilter murderer and his lawyer — are as unlikely a pair of heroes as they are friends.

Yet the natural chemistry and watchable demeanor of the actors who play the odd couple make this 1940s courtroom drama, which opened Wednesday at off-Broadway’s 59E59 Theaters, thoroughly enjoyable.

Chad Kimball plays Willie Moore, a youthful petty criminal who, because of an attempted prison break, is transferred to the notorious federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island. After a second escape attempt, the convict finds himself [auth] squarely in the crosshairs of the correctional facility’s higher-ups, who are bent on making an example of him to the other prisoners.

For trying to escape the island, Moore is locked in solitary confinement for an inhumanely long period, suffering a psychological and emotional breakdown. When he’s finally admitted back into the prison’s population, he kills an inmate.

Kimball, whose performance in Broadway’s “Memphis” garnered a Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical, plays Moore with a deliciously volatile edge that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, while somehow mustering an aw-shucks innocence that evokes sympathy.

Guy Burnet plays Moore’s idealistic, young defense attorney, Henry, who makes headlines by seeking to deflect the blame in the suddenly high-profile murder case, pointing the finger at Moore’s captors — Alcatraz and its administrators.

The British actor Burnet puts on an impressively convincing 1940s American accent and his character butts heads throughout the production with just about everyone from his client, to his brother Byron (John Stanisci), to his girlfriend Mary (Larisa Polonsky), who also happens to be his boss.

The fictional account is inspired by true events that shook the country’s most infamous penal institution to its core. Alcatraz Island, the subject of countless pop-culture depictions, was for decades the landing spot for the nation’s most hardened criminals. It has not functioned as a prison since 1963, when it was emptied of its last inmates.

Gordon’s credits include Broadway’s “Irena’s Vow” and the movie “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington. He based the fast-moving, two-act “Murder in the First” on his original screenplay for the 1995 film of the same title, which featured Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman and Christian Slater.

The stage version feels a bit like an old, black-and-white movie, with cinematic pacing and chilling background music (Quentin Chiappetta) that sounds like it could have been written for a TV crime drama.

Under the conservative but solid direction of Michael Parva, who also directed Gordon’s “Irena’s Vow,” the well-acted production has considerable theatrical value.

The stage is divided into three sections, with the courtroom in the middle, flanked by Willie’s cell and Henry’s apartment on either side. Actors occasionally appear on a walkway above the stage.

Ultimately, the strength of “Murder in the First,” which is on display through July 1, is in Gordon’s consistently smart, and at times funny, dialogue, and terrific performances in the roles of an unlucky criminal and his quixotic attorney.

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