When the movie "Judgment at Nuremberg" opened 40 years ago, it was hailed as an important piece of thinking about individual guilt in Nazi Germany. Perhaps because it was still too fresh, too raw, it had not been a major topic during the 1950s. For screenwriter Abby Mann (who first wrote "Nuremberg" as a teleplay) and director Stanley Kramer even to broach it made the star-studded film seem a major event. What was admirable about Mann's effort was that he focused on an individual case rather than attempt to convey the enormity of what had happened, something that still remains beyond our ability to imagine. However, the case he has now dramatized as a play, that of an older Jew sent to a concentration camp after allegations of a sexual relationship with an Aryan minor, today seems quite inadequate as an image for Nazi injustice. Forty years ago, of course, anything with a sexual component was highly charged; now it seems all too trivial for so thorny a topic. Watching the beautiful production Tony Randall's National Actors Theater has given the drama, I confess I was less caught up in its moral issues than in studying how the chemistry of individual actors can give the stage a vitality the material itself does not. Maximilian Schell, for example, who played the defense counsel in the film, here plays the chief defendant, a distinguished judge who all too willingly enforced the Nazi codes. He gives the role a craggy, wounded stature that makes this ethically sloppy jurist an almost tragic figure. Thus his simple presence adds a complexity that is not in the text. In his former role, the man who must defend him and three other judges, is taken by Michael Hayden, who shows remarkable authority and strength - and good German diction. As the head of the tribunal, a good ol' boy from North Carolina who hasn't been in Germany since he fought there in World War I, George Grizzard has a wily charm and an inner moral solidity that convey superbly the idea America had of itself in 1947. Marthe Keller has great dignity as the aristocrat in whose house Grizzard stays, but, beneath the civilized exterior, she suggests a gift for survival far more developed than any ethical concern. In a uniformly powerful ensemble, Joseph Wiseman plays a witness and demonstrates why he has always been so esteemed an actor. The play has been well staged by John Tillinger though there is a certain awkwardness at having the judges at the back, forcing actors frequently to upstage themselves. Physically, the production is understated but powerful. Few NAT productions have fulfilled the group's aim of being a true actor's theater as deeply as this one.
It's rare to walk out of a play and wish it had been longer. But Abby Mann's post-Holocaust drama, ''Judgment at Nuremberg,'' which opened on Broadway yesterday at the Longacre Theater, is a bit too brisk and trim for its own good. This is not to say that the show's two and a half hours fly by but rather that Mr. Mann's famous story about Nazi judges on trial before an American tribunal doesn't shrink comfortably to stage time and space. The play feels edited, nipped and tucked, in short, adapted.
That's hardly surprising. The material was drawn, of course, from the last round of the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, and Mr. Mann first rendered it in a 1959 teleplay and subsequently as a movie script and a novel. But the constraints of the stage -- no cameras, no intercutting between scenes, no close-ups -- and perhaps a fear of the theater audience's diminished attention span seem to have foisted a need to economize on Mr. Mann and the director, John Tillinger.
And for those who remember Stanley Kramer's 1961 film version, the play may be particularly attenuated by the comparison it will inevitably stir. Chiefly what has been excised is the centrality of the lead American jurist, Dan Haywood, an obscure district court judge whose fundamental open-mindedness -- ''I'm a rock-ribbed Republican who thinks Roosevelt was a great man,'' he says at one point -- isn't quite masked by a backwoods affect.
One of the strengths of the three-hour film is that it is painstaking in illustrating Haywood's German education. Mr. Mann's Oscar-winning screenplay told its story largely through Haywood's experience, and in Spencer Tracy's somber and steely performance his delving into the lives of ordinary Germans who submitted to Hitler becomes a powerful narrative all by itself, the story of a fair man bending over backward to see the world from a perspective that baffles and horrifies him.
Here Haywood walks a shortened path; his travels around Nuremberg and his interactions with Germans have been cut way back. He is played by George Grizzard, whose silvery white hair is reminiscent of Tracy's but whose characterization is not. A North Carolinian in the play (in the film, Haywood was from Maine), Grizzard's Haywood comes equipped with a cheery Southern drawl (at first, anyway; he eventually loses the accent) and a hickness that give him an Andy of Mayberry aspect. It's unwisely diminishing, but it is supported by the script, which makes Haywood far more naïve than he needs -- or ought -- to be.
At one point Haywood asks his aide, a black military officer, ''Hard to believe it really happened, isn't it?'' and then is completely dumbfounded when the aide responds: ''Not for me. I grew up in Texas.'' And an intimate conversation between Haywood and a general's widow (Marthe Keller, in a striking if abbreviated turn) is configured into a first-act finale that brings the lights down with cringe-inducing sappiness. ''What the hell happened in this country?'' Haywood asks shaking his fist at the air. ''I've got to find out. I have to.''
Still, if the play has sacrificed some narrative depth, it does maintain a fullness of legal and moral argument. The show's strength is in the courtroom scenes. They are of course written to raise provocative questions: What is the responsibility of individuals caught in a seemingly irresistible wave of evildoing? Were most Germans in the dark, as they claimed, about the purpose of Nazi camps? Would a conviction of the judges amount to a condemnation of all Germans? Politics is involved as well. During the trial the Russians invade Czechoslovakia, making conquered Germany a potentially pivotal American ally, perhaps not worth offending with a verdict based strictly on laws and moral imperatives.
So key questions apply to both the Germans on trial and Americans trying them. At what point does patriotism part company with virtue? What man is fit to judge another? On James Noone's set, three walls of dark, mirrored panels reinforce the idea that the issues can be viewed from many angles; at the same time the pure awfulness of mass murder hovers over the trials in photographs of unidentified victims projected across the mirrors like strips of celluloid. Against this backdrop the frantic rhetorical battle to define justice is staged by Mr. Tillinger at a tension-ratcheting gallop and skillfully performed by a company that includes Robert Foxworth as the American prosecutor; Joseph Wiseman and Michael Mastro as prosecution witnesses; Maximilian Schell as the leading defendant, Ernst Janning, a once unassailable jurist now tormented by his accession to Nazi edicts; and Michael Hayden as the German defense lawyer Oscar Rolfe, the role that 40 years ago made Mr. Schell a star.
This production may do the same for Mr. Hayden, whose square-shouldered, dark good looks recall the youthful Mr. Schell and whose poise and fervor as he mounts his increasingly persuasive defense are mesmerizing. His arguments -- that the judges merely acted according to existing law; that working within the system allowed them to help more people than they could have otherwise; and that placing blame on them is unfair when so many others are equally culpable -- take shape in a series of one-on-one confrontations.
Most notable are his cross-examinations of Mr. Wiseman, who plays Janning's former mentor, and of Mr. Mastro, as a twitchy, dimwitted laborer who was forcibly sterilized by the Nazis. His merciless bullying plays on the witnesses' most shameful secrets. And in Rolfe's face-offs with his personal icon, Janning, who disdains any defense because he's already found himself guilty, Mr. Hayden is facing off with an icon of his own. Neither the character nor the actor appears cowed.
The arrogance and surety of a young, gifted lawyer at a career-making threshold is so present in Mr. Hayden's performance that when he gives his summation, accusing the Vatican, Winston Churchill and American corporations that reaped war profits of complicity with the Nazis, the audience applauds as if he were the good guy. For his part Mr. Schell plays Janning as more openly pained, far less stoic than Burt Lancaster did so memorably in the film.
That may be because stoicism plays well in close-up and is not so perceptible from the rear mezzanine, but in any case it changes the character of Janning, makes him more transparent in the way that melodrama is more transparent than drama.
Nonetheless, in the context of this production, that's not a bad thing. Mr. Schell is an imposing figure onstage, and as he makes Janning's inner crumbling outwardly visible, it gives the audience a visceral tug. When he and Mr. Hayden are nose to nose, the idea of his staring back at his own formidable youth yields a palpable tremor. These are representative moments in a play that gives oratory the muscle, sweat and high stakes of a last-man-standing prizefight. One only wishes it were more of a character-driven story and not merely a debate.