'A Time to Kill' review: John Grisham by the numbers

Fred Dalton Thompson, left, John Douglas Thompson, center,

Fred Dalton Thompson, left, John Douglas Thompson, center, and Sebastian Arcelus during a performance of "A Time to Kill," a play adapted from John Grisham novel. (Credit: AP)

A hardworking turntable lets us see the courtroom from different angles during the many scenes in "A Time to Kill," Rupert Holmes' adaptation of John Grisham's 1989 bestseller about a racially charged murder trial in mean-town Mississippi.

Showing various angles, alas, is not the same as revealing different perspectives in this paint-by-number play that, not incidentally, is familiar, admired and readily available as a taut, all-star 1996 movie.

Courtroom dramas once had a long, respectable tradition as entertaining, easy-mark theater. After decades of legal procedurals on TV and film, however, it takes fresh urgency, irresistible casting and a real pulse to justify a big-ticket Broadway version.

Under Ethan McSweeny's conscientious direction, what we get instead is 2-1/ 2 hours of competent acting and monotonous storytelling that seldom elevate the serious plot -- a black man shoots the white men who raped his 10-year-old daughter -- from the genre of theatrical hokum.

The production does give more theatergoers a chance to discover John Douglas Thompson, a bona fide Off-Broadway star who deserves major roles in mainstream showcases. Thompson brings gripping, underplayed anguish to the portrayal of Carl Lee Hailey, the man who kills his daughter's attackers in the courthouse then turns himself in.

The story is full of standard-issue good ol' boys and cracker sociopaths and ceiling fans and decent white folks who save the good black people while braving the angry Klan. Yes, there is an onstage burning cross in one scene on James Noone's walnut-paneled set, which goes from the small courtroom to a legal office and back to the courtroom, etc., accompanied by twangy dirt-kicking music and moody overhead projections.

This is the kind of project that requires a few old-time showboaters, and we get most of what's needed. As the ambitious district attorney, Patrick Page -- Broadway's original Green Goblin -- has an unctuous basso that booms as if it has risen from the bottom of a deep, slimy well. Tom Skerritt, in his Broadway debut, leans with amusing confidence into the drunken dissipation of the disbarred master lawyer. Only Fred Dalton Thompson, who has dominated throngs as a real Tennessee senator and as the D.A. on "Law & Order," seems uneasy as the judge.

Sebastian Arcelus has a pleasant sincerity as the crusading lawyer, Ashley Williams is fun to watch but hard to believe as the legal intern with the posh background and an uncanny way of saving the day with just the right obscure fact. Tonya Pinkins, who gets more wonderful with every nonmusical role, is reduced to brief cameos as Carl's anguished wife. Where's the Broadway vehicle for her?


WHAT "A Time to Kill"

WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.

INFO $69.50-$132; 212-239-6200; atimetokillonbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Paint-by-numbers adaptation of Grisham favorite.

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