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Execution of Justice (03/13/1986 - 03/22/1986)


New York Daily News: "This interminable offering is really a Miscarriage of 'Justice'"

Another half hour, and you might have been able to say that the noisy and jumbled "Execution of Justice," an interminable play that opened last night at the Virginia, executed the audience.

Emily Mann, the author and director of this disordered affair, has edited trial transcripts, published reports and interviews pertaining to the 1979 murders of San Francisco's Mayor Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, and tried to shape a coherent theater piece out of them. Mostly a courtroom drama, it induces practically unrelieved tedium.

Part of the trouble, of course, rests in our familiarity with these recent happenings. Dan White, a disgruntled - and probably psychotic - former supervisor made his way into San Francisco's City Hall and shot the two men to death. He served a relatively light sentence and committed suicide the year after his release.

This material, if concisely presented, might have provided the stuff of drama. But in Mann's and the designers' hands, the stage is so filled with gimmickry that the result is distracting and often incoherent.

Naturally, the author has deeper intent than the dramatization of a miscarriage of justice. Since Milk was a homosexual whose rise to political power was greeted with enthusiasm by San Francisco's homosexual community, Mann attempts to draw a bold line between the conservatives and liberals and hinge her play, to some extent, on the gay rights issue - even though it seems clear that the murders were politically motivated.

With a cast of 24 accounting for twice that many parts, there is enough room for confusion. Add to that scenes from a film about Milk projected on three sides of a large cube-like appendage over stage center, closeups of stage scenes being filmed by cameramen on sidewall catwalks and, stage rear, banked rows of seats containing playgoers (one fell asleep, it was pointed out to me), idling cast members and, finally, bold lighting on occasion directed glaringly at the audience, and you have something close to pandemonium.

And let it further be added that the author's amateurish direction, allowing for speeches from one side of the stage to cover, and obliterate, talk from another part, just compounds the mess.

Small wonder, then, that the trial itself, which is the core of the piece, has trouble commanding our attention even from the center of the stage. Under the circumstances, the actors don't stand much of a chance. But given brief solo spots, mostly from the witness stand, Jon DeVries as a homicide detective, Marcia Jean Kurtz as a psychiatrist riddled with the jargon of her calling and Donal Donnelly as a fussy forensics expert do manage to make an impression.

It is difficult to understand the license given to such first-rate theater craftsmen as Ming Cho Lee (set) and Pat Collins (lighting). Only Jennifer von Mayrhauser's invariably apt and unostentatious costumes defy criticism.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Execution' Milks court drama for what it's worth"

Do the names George Moscone and Harvey Milk mean anything to you? If they don't, Emily Mann's new play, Execution of Justice, which opened at the Virginia Theater last night, may have a tough time getting its day in court, or its night in the theater.

But perhaps not. The law court is so close to the theater - only the stakes are different - and the forensic process so infused with histrionics, that the term "courtroom drama" is all but redundant.

I have never met a courtroom drama that didn't work at some level - not even in a courtroom - and Execution of Justice is certainly no exception. But does it work on enough levels? Judge for yourself.

It is a docudrama with a text derived from the trial transcripts, reportage and interviews of an actual and notorious case, the 1978 murder in San Francisco of Mayor Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first acknowledged homosexual elected to office in that city.

Their assassin was one Dan White, a former city supervisor himself, who had left his job, wanted it back, and was refused. Nominally, that refusal provided the motive.

Nominally - but there was a suggestion that the crime was triggered by a more overt political purpose. White was resolutely right-wing in what he perceived to be an increasingly permissive city, symbolized to him by Moscone and Milk.

White's guilt was never in question. The only question was on what charge he would be convicted.

Much to the consternation of the nation's liberals, White escaped on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, and was paroled after only five years.

A law-and-order man to the last - almost as if recognizing that justice had miscarried even in his own case - White later committed suicide, gassing himself in his own garage.

Miss Mann has presented the trial and the street-scene background of the polarized city with rather more ingenuity than clarity. The proceedings lack suspense, and Miss Mann, who has staged the play, tries to whip up the excitement with extensive use of high-tech visual aids.

The trouble is: what is Harvey Milk to New York, or New York to Harvey Milk? Yes, of course, as the recent movie indicated, the events surrounding these political assasinations were scarcely insular. Yes, the tocsin bell could be heard tolling for the liberal cause, the basic question of human rights, across the country.

This was not so much for what was done - personally I think White was more of nut than a symbol, and given the roller-coaster irregularities of American justice, the wildly lenient jury decision could be justified by the letter if not the spirit - but from what was perceived to have been done.

The story was in the feelings, the actual riots surrounding the trial, not the trial itself. And this is where Miss Mann's docudrama slips on its brief.

Where Miss Mann is extremely well served is in her very large and multi-purposed cast, and her direction of it. Even when the thrust of the play becomes unbalanced and muddled, the actors stand out.

John Spencer as Dan White is a model of moral-majority befuddlement, but as in any properly directed trial, the essential interplay is between opposing counsel, and here an eloquent but slightly sleazy Peter Friedman for the defense and a worldly and cocksure Gerry Bamman for the prosecution make compelling adversaries.

There are the usual comic psychiatrist turns, and particularly good performances are delivered by Jon DeVries, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Stanley Tucci and Isabell Monk.

Ming Cho Lee has devised a setting that provides a decent semblance of a court environment.

I suppose the trouble with the play is that while interested and saddened, I was never really outraged.

And this kind of play, about justice's miscarriage, either fires one with a sense of outrage or, in the final count, fails.

New York Post

New York Times: "Emily Mann's 'Execution of Justice'"

In Emily Mann's ''Execution of Justice,'' the case of the People vs. Dan White is on trial in the court of theater and is found guilty of a miscarriage of justice. That conclusion is reached after a thought-provoking evening that is scrupulous in its quest for objectivity. With the playwright acting as investigative reporter, the play is not a polemic but a judicious assessment of a turbulent episode in recent American political history.

Written and directed by Miss Mann, the play opened last night at the Virginia Theater after previous productions at a number of America's regional theaters. During the work's journey to Broadway, Miss Mann has carefully distilled the text, eliminating testimony that might be considered extraneous or hortatory.

The basic facts of the case are: In a double-barreled act of violence in November 1978, Dan White killed George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a city Supervisor and the first avowed homosexual to hold high public office in that city. After a trial that polarized San Francisco the following year, the accused was convicted on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison. He was released in January 1984 after serving a little more than five years, and last fall he took his own life.

The trial had political reverberations and more than the usual set of courtroom contradictions. The killer, himself a former Supervisor and Army veteran, had been a policeman and a fireman. As a spokesman for law and order, he is heard saying, in one of the play's many telling lines, ''This city isn't safe,'' ignoring the fact that he himself was a threat.

Mr. White was vigorously supported by members of the police department. Ironically, the chief inspector of homicide was an old friend of the accused and became his chief character witness. Because the prosecutor was apparently wary of the caloric temper of the community, similar testimony was not solicited to vouch for the moral character of the deceased. The victims were further victimized by the public perception of them as outsiders.

One watches the play - and this is the third time I have seen it in different productions - with a sense of outrage, not only at the miscarriage but at what the play suggests about a public and legal mind-set that allows criminals to avoid just punishment.

The White case could have been a subject for fictionalization or for a documentary (as it was in the Academy Award-winning ''The Times of Harvey Milk,'' excerpts from which appear in the play). Miss Mann has chosen the more difficult middle ground of documentary drama. In an approach that she labels ''theater of testimony,'' the text is drawn entirely from the trial and other records, supplemented by interviews. Nothing, presumably, is invented, and the facts speak for themselves.

While the author is notably more successful in this approach than was the case in other recent related plays (''In the Belly of the Beast,'' ''Dennis''), she pays a price for her method. By restricting herself to the record, she necessarily limits her authorial imagination.

Some of the testimony is banal, as it evidently was in real life. The legal case was not brilliantly argued, though the advantage goes to the defense. Whether through neglect or complacency, the prosecution refrains from challenging jurors and overlooks important witnesses.

In an artful insertion, the author partly compensates by letting us hear from ''uncalled witnesses.'' A policeman who acted as White's guard makes it clear that the accused showed absolutely no remorse. The district attorney, whose political career was ended by the trial, declares, after the fact, that Mr. White was motivated by malice.

As director, Miss Mann has not always abetted her own script. In the Broadway production, the prosecutor (Gerry Bamman) fusses and fidgets - and is condescending in his cross-examination. This stage portrait of a prosecutor's incompetence could be an attempt to record accurately the attorney's manner in court, or it could be a case of an actor trying to embellish a role with character details - in other words, to make his man more dramatically interesting. In any case, the characterization is distracting - and several other actors are led into unnecessary histrionics. This was not true in Douglas C. Wager's production at the Arena Stage in Washington.

Miss Mann utilizes some of Mr. Wager's hi-tech television techniques - as in an effective depiction of a candelit parade - and a proscenium adaptation of Ming Cho Lee's set design. She has drawn excellent performances from a number of actors - Peter Friedman as the defense attorney; Isabell Monk, Earle Hyman, Donal Donnelly and Jon DeVries in a variety of roles; and, especially, from John Spencer as Dan White. Mr. Spencer holds firmly - and convincingly - to the conception of the accused as a man who believes in himself as a responsible public servant even as he commits his horrendous act.

Because of the need for exposition, the first act is discursive, but the second act brings the seemingly diffuse elements into focus. In a collage technique, testimony overlaps and counterpoint is created. The defense's argument, absurd but apparently conclusive, that Mr. White had ''diminished capacity'' due to an excessive ingestion of junk food, is supported by the testimony of psychiatric experts - in the play a self-satiric colloquy.

Perhaps the most bizarre testimony comes from the doctor who suggests that a gun be regarded as a ''transitional object,'' clung to in situations of ''anxiety and insecurity,'' in other words, an adult's version of a teddy bear. Such statements chill the theatergoer into understanding the climate of opinion and fear that produced the verdict. The play is a bold attempt to explore not just one crime but contemporary moral values and the criminal justice system.

New York Times

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