Broadway seldom goes in for courtroom dramas anymore, a genre that has remained a staple of primetime TV through endless iterations of the Law & Order franchise. So the producers of A Time to Kill didn’t take any chances, choosing to adapt a 1989 best-seller by John Grisham. Better yet for name recognition, the source material also yielded a hit 1996 movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock as young defense lawyers drawn into a racially charged murder case in a small Mississippi town. The producers even drafted Law & Order alum Fred Dalton Thompson, now chrome-domed, to play the judge. All that’s missing is the sonic cha-ching between scenes.
Well, that’s not all that’s missing. So is any sense of surprise. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, there’s little doubt what will happen to the black Mississippi man (John Douglas Thompson) on trial for gunning down the two rednecks who brutally raped his 10-year-old daughter and left her for dead.
Still, as anyone who has stayed up late watching a Law & Order repeat knows, familiarity can be enormously reassuring. And Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) does an admirable job of condensing Grisham’s 600-plus-page book, jettisoning entire subplots and characters (the wife of Jake, our defense lawyer hero, for instance) while emphasizing the story’s dramatic highlights. Unfortunately, this also means that character development often gets short shrift. Ashley Williams’ Boston-bred law student, who joins the defense team and has a brief flirtation with Jake, seems particularly sketchy.
As Jake, Sebastian Arcelus (Elf: The Musical) has a natural stage presence and combed-back hair that recalls McConaughey’s from the film. But he lacks a certain good-old-boy charm that the local attorney and former football star would need to sway a hometown jury.
The veterans among the 14-person ensemble fare slightly better in fleshing out characters who are often little more than types on the page. Thompson brings a quiet dignity to his role as the accused, and Tonya Pinkins crackles in her brief scenes as his wife (never mind that both seem a tad old to play the parents of a 10-year-old). Patrick Page is a delightfully over-the-top blend of supercilious and unctuous as the prosecutor who wears his gubernatorial ambitions on his cufflinks. And Tom Skerritt rips into his role as Jake’s boozy former mentor with scenery-chewing glee.
Despite some longish scene changes on James Noone’s turntable set, director Ethan McSweeny keeps the action moving to the decisive closing arguments. There isn’t much subtlety in A Time to Kill — Lindsay Jones’ overly intrusive underscore cues up at every dramatic moment — but it manages to convey a mostly satisfying sense of justice being served. C+