It takes two larger-than-life actors to make "Inherit the Wind" really crackle, and its latest Broadway revival has come up with quite a pair - Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy.
The play, a fictionalized retelling by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee of the "Scopes monkey trial," is an old-fashioned, American courtroom drama. Yet today, the subject matter still sounds contemporary, and director Doug Hughes has given the work a streamlined, fast-paced production that manages to get the most out of this cannily constructed entertainment now on view at the Lyceum Theatre.
Set in a small Southern town in 1925, "Inherit the Wind" follows the trial of a young school teacher accused of teaching evolution. Yet the play, first seen in New York in 1955, doesn't focus on the teacher. It finds its fireworks in the clash between the defense lawyer and the prosecuting attorney.
Plummer portrays the man's lawyer, a role modeled after the legendary Clarence Darrow, and Dennehy is his opponent, a character loosely based on perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.
There is something eminently satisfying about watching two pros at work. The craggy Plummer, slicked-down hair falling to one side of his forehead, moves slowly, each movement guaranteed to get the audience's attention.
But it's more than movement that gets theatergoers to notice him. There's Plummer's voice, crisp and forceful, as his character - Henry Drummond - negotiates his way through a proceeding that's stacked against his client, played with appropriate earnestness by Benjamin Walker.
The town of Hillsboro, described by a reporter covering the trial as "the buckle in the Bible Belt," is firmly in the anti-evolution camp. Before the play begins, a quartet of on-stage performers sing hymns. Audience members also sit on stage, forming a kind of a modern-day jury.
Lawrence and Lee, best known for their play "Auntie Mame" and the book for its musical adaptation ("Mame"), are not into agitprop, although "Inherit the Wind" certainly finds its hero in Plummer's character. But the lawyer is after more than whether evolution is right or wrong.
"I hold that the right to think is very much on trial," says Drummond, describing the defendant as a thinking man "threatened with fine and imprisonment because he chooses to speak what he thinks."
The barrel-chested Dennehy is physically right for the self-assured prosecutor - Matthew Harrison Brady. The man booms with confidence, particularly where the Bible is concerned. And Dennehy has the craft to make sure the bluster doesn't turn into caricature.
Plummer and Dennehy rightly dominate the production, but other actors manage to make an impression, too. A Baltimore newspaper reporter (Denis O'Hare) covering the trial is awash in cynicism. "I am admired for my detestability," he grins, and O'Hare goes out of his way to make sure the journalist, a thinly disguised version of the real-life H.L. Mencken, is as obnoxious as possible.
Byron Jennings as a fire-and-brimstone preacher, Maggie Lacey as his agitated daughter (in love, of course, with the accused teacher) and Beth Fowler as Brady's sweetly supportive wife offer finely etched portraits.
"Inherit the Wind" was a big hit when it first opened on Broadway in a production featuring Paul Muni and Ed Begley, and there was a movie version in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.
In its craftsmanship, the play is much like another venerable drama from the 1950s, "Twelve Angry Men," which was a surprise hit on Broadway in 2004. There is a suspense, a sense of anticipation about the outcome of "Inherit the Wind" that is innately theatrical.
Mix that with some of Drummond's more homey, common-sense observations - such as "The man who has everything figured out is probably a fool," which are peppered throughout the evening - and you have a play that, more than 50 years after its premiere, is still an unabashed crowd-pleaser.
It's been said that Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's "Inherit the Wind" has been "performed almost every night somewhere in the world" since its Tony-winning debut in 1955.
You probably know the story, which is based on the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial." A schoolteacher is put on trial for illegally teaching evolution and the chasm between religious faith and scientific reason comes to light.
Does the oft-done drama have any surprises left in it?
Director Doug Hughes' thoughtful production, which opened last night at the Lyceum, proves it does.
Credit belongs to Christopher Plummer, whose thrilling portrayal of defense counsel Henry Drummond is enough to make the revival a must-see. The character, based on Clarence Darrow, enters silhouetted against a ruddy glow of the setting sun and is branded "the devil!!” That's fitting, since the raspy-voiced Plummer blazes as a man with intelligence, passion, humanity and unflinching belief in free thought. His nuanced performance conveys the trial's high stakes.
Brian Dennehy plays Drummond's courtroom opponent, Matthew Harrison Brady, a three-time presidential candidate. The actor is physically right for this so-called giant, who is based on William Jennings Bryan. Dennehy always turns in first-class performances, but is limited somewhat by Brady's one-dimensionality as a Bible thumper. The characterization comes off a little small.
Hughes seeks to invigorate the 52~year~old play with creative flourishes that are semi-successful. Audience members are seated on the stage on bleachers, as if to expand the population of fundamentalist Hillsboro, where the action is set. But the civilians simply blend into the action, not adding to or subtracting from the proceedings.
Hughes lIses music extensively to underscore the hannony of the townspeople. Cates and Drummond, then, are out o fstep and out of tune. It is a good idea, but having more than a dozen hymns and spirituals sung before and during the play is overkill.
Denis O'Hare plays snarky reporter E.K. Hornbeck (modeled after H.L. Mencken) like he's in a musical comedy. His typically tic-y performance is so broad the word "news it has four syllables. Hughes should have shouted, "I object!"
More convincing performances come from Byron Jennings as the town's by-the-book pastor; Maggie Lacey as his conflicted daughter and Benjamin Walker, who nicely captures the nervous but brave schoolteacher Bert Cates.
The authors set the story in a time that is "not too long ago/' If some of its language is creaky ("A thought is like a child inside our body"), its explorations of faith and free thought remain highly relevant.
The handsome wooden courtroom that has been erected on the stage of the Lyceum Theater is Christopher Plummer's personal playground. This may sound like a frivolous description of a forum for the lofty and abidingly important debate that occupies "Inherit the Wind," the 1955 drama that opened last night, also starring Brian Dennehy, in a revival that is just about as wooden as its set.
But while the subject of teaching evolution and religion in public schools is even more topical than it was when Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's worthy war horse first galloped onto Broadway more than half a century ago, Mr. Plummer at play is something sacred. If the Bible-quoting fundamentalists in "Inherit the Wind" want to make a case for the spark of divinity that separates man from beast, they need only point to the show's august star, having the time of his life, as Exhibit A.
Approaching the end of his eighth decade, Mr. Plummer knows that if all the world's a stage, few places in it are more temptingly so than a courtroom, an arena that would seem to have been conceived expressly for showboats with scripts.
Aside from playing another actor (and Mr. Plummer won his last Tony in 1997 for portraying John Barrymore), nothing lets an actor act, with the full panoply of shameless tricks, like the role of a lawyer. So it should surprise no one that as Henry Drummond - a character based on Clarence Darrow, the granddaddy of grandstanding lawyers - Mr. Plummer has the audience eating from his hand as soon as he snaps his suspenders.
It is meant as no discredit to Mr. Plummer that for New York theater goers, or at least the subset that would automatically attend "Inherit the Wind," pretty much anyone who played Drummond would have the house in his corner.
In this fictional re-creation of the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925 - in which a Tennessee high-school science teacher was tried for including Darwin's theories of evolution in his curriculum - Drummond stands for freedom of belief. Written in the anxious shadow of the McCarthy hearings, "Wind" turned its Darrow surrogate into a salty saint who unquestionably had the angels - the secular kind, anyway - on his team.
Still, for this play to be the crackling courtroom drama it was intended to be, we need to feel the force of Drummond's opposition. And not one soul on the side of creationism in this revival, directed by Doug Hughes, has a flicker of Mr. Plummer's fire. Sadly, that includes the estimable Mr. Dennehy, the two-time Tony winner who plays Drummond's formidable adversary, Matthew Harrison Brady, a character inspired by the grandiloquent politician William Jennings Bryan.
This glaring imbalance means that "Wind" never musters much more velocity than that of a drugstore fan, Mr. Hughes, whose credits include the gripping Broadway productions of "Doubt" and "Frozen," has made a stilted attempt to reconceive the play as a sort of Brechtian exercise.
The line between the "us" of now and the "them" of then is blurred by placing audience members in risers on the stage. (Santo Loquasto did the effective world-on-trial set.) A gospel quartet sings directly to the house. And the show makes striking use of oversize signs and frozen phalanxes of townspeople, ominously lighted by Brian MacDevitt.
This atmosphere, meant to conjure the dangerous spirit of down-home fascism, extends into first-act set pieces like the revival meeting led by the Rev. Jeremiah Brown (played by Byron Jennings with a ramrod posture and maniacal gaze). The good folk of Hillsboro sport feverish looks of vengeance and giant torches for the occasion, as if they were planning to lynch Frankenstein's monster after prayers
But once the play settles into the trial, expressionist flourishes are abandoned, as they must be. The enduring appeal of "Inherit the Wind" is not as a play of ideas, which are mostly expressed in the manner of stump speeches, but as an occasion for two seasoned stars to trade punches in the boxing ring of the courtroom. Over the years the sparring partners in stage, film and television versions of "Wind" have included Paul Muni, Ed Begley, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Jason Robards, Jack Lemmon and, for the previous Broadway revival (in 1996), George C. Scott and Charles Durning.
Mr. Plummer and Mr. Dennehy seemed as promising a pair of boxers as any of the above. Yet almost from the moment he first speaks, Mr. Dennehy is down for the count. As written Brady is a man of luxuriant bombast and self-importance, an over-inflated balloon ripe for the pricking. A three-time candidate for the United States presidency, he has become an eternal also-ran, and the spreading cracks in his confidence lead to a shattering public breakdown.
Mr. Dennehy (who has lost a lot of weight since he dazzled New Yorkers as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman") has never seemed in better shape. Right up unto that annihilating standoff with Drummond, this Brady seems so coolly self-assured that you never fear for his health or sanity, as his wife (the excellent Beth Fowler) obviously does. It is said that the temperature in the courthouse is 97 degrees, but Mr. Dennehy never breaks a sweat.
The glad-handing, hard-smiling persona of the inveterate politician comes easily to Mr. Dennehy. (He seems to lead with his upper row of teeth.) But there's little evidence of Brady's fanatical faith or hunger for admiration. Without that, it's hard to care what happens to him, one way or the other.
Much of the rest of the cast seems similarly uninvested in the proceedings. Exceptions include Ms. Fowler, who watches Mr. Dennehy with a vigilant fierceness that recalls Nancy Reagan in the White House, and Benjamin Walker, who radiates the requisite sincerity as the Darwinist defendant.
Denis O'Hare, who plays a cynical newspaper reporter inspired by H. L. Mencken, cannot be accused of apathy. But his stylized vaudeville performance belongs to another show (maybe "George M").
Which leaves ns with Mr. Plummer, which is not nothing. Last seen on Broadway as a magnificently human King Lear, he manages to milk Shakespearean music from Drummond's long courtroom musings.
He has some of the irascible twinkliness of Spencer Tracy in the film. But he doesn't coast on the plainspoken wisdom of a character presented as the Will Rogers of jurisprudence. I believed that this Drummond felt his age, felt the years he'd known Brady, felt the tragedy of a situation in which no one, personally, would win.
I also believed that he - unlike most of the others onstage - truly felt the heat of a stuffy summer courtroom in the days before air conditioning. This may sound like a minor point. But for "Inherit the Wind" to be more than a yellowing position paper, you must be convinced that these are characters who exist in a very particular time and place, where it happens to be hotter than, well, hell.
Mr. Plummer alone takes us there. For this "Wind" to achieve anything approaching gale force, he needs a lot more assistance than he's getting.
The program for the new Broadway production of Inherit the Wind (* * * out of four) describes the play as taking place "not too long ago."
The trial that inspired Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 52-year-old drama occurred in 1925, when a Tennessee teacher partial to Charles Darwin was convicted for violating a state law against promoting any theory of evolution at odds with the Bible's concept of divine creation. But for anyone tracking clashes between science and religion, the issues in Inherit will hardly seem like old news.
To say that the play is at least as topical now as it was in 1955 is not to say that it doesn't show its age.
Lawrence and Lee's account of the battle between Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond - based on real-life attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, respectively - can seem quaint, both in its characterization of small-town life and its depiction of how sophisticated folk match wits.
Luckily, this revival, which opened Thursday at the Lyceum Theatre, stars a pair of actors who could mop the sap from any chestnut. Brian Dennehy plays the revered prosecutor Brady. Christopher Plummer is Drummond, whom the local reverend calls "a creature of the devil, perhaps even the devil himself!"
If Plummer's is the meatier role, it also requires him to toss off righteous lines that can be as hokey as the self-righteous outbursts of the reverend and Brady's other fans. But both he and Dennehy bring an authority and vigor to their roles that resist caricature.
In making Brady and Drummond compellingly human - and establishing a rapport between them. Particularly lighter moments - the leading men also serve the playwrights' ultimate message: that neither figure, nor the townspeople, should be dismissed or mocked. When Drummond defends his rival to a snooty journalist, he offers a reminder that faith and rational thought needn't be mutually exclusive.
Director Doug Hughes culls less nuanced performances from other actors, including the usually excellent Denis O'Hare, who milks the reporter's purple prose. There are folksy touches such as a choir leading pre-curtain alongs and, for audience members who want to feel closer to the action, seats on stage.
From wherever you're sitting, though, this Inherit is best seen as a vehicle for two old pros whose phenomenal talents are beyond any debate.
In the closing scene of "Inherit the Wind," defense attorney Henry Drummond warns, "You don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?" That line points up the already evident truth in this half-century-old nugget of robust Americana -- that fundamentalism of any kind breeds, and continues to breed, closed-minded bigotry, constituting a threat to freedom of thought and the circulation of ideas. But even without its ample contemporary parallels, Doug Hughes' dynamic production would be crackling entertainment, enlivened by the vigorous verbal sparring of two great lions of the stage, Brian Dennehy and Christopher Plummer.
Like the Broadway revival two seasons back of "Twelve Angry Men," Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play is a sterling example of the best of mid-'50s American drama, with its rock-solid construction, incisively drawn characters and unequivocally liberal-leaning moral lucidity. It's also a prime specimen of a breed of compelling courtroom drama now usurped by television in "Law & Order" and its procedural imitators.
Written in response to the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy witch hunts and the resultant shadow cast on intellectual freedom, "Inherit the Wind" follows the outline of the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial in Dayton, Tenn., in which high school biology teacher John T. Scopes was charged with violating a state statute by sharing Darwin's theories of evolution with his students.
The playwrights made no attempt to disguise the real-life models for their key characters. Compassionate agnostic Drummond (Plummer) was a direct portrait of Clarence Darrow, a leading figure of the American Civil Liberties Union and a legal Goliath known for taking on politically touchy cases. A repeat presidential candidate and devout Bible scholar, prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Dennehy) was the doppelganger of William Jennings Bryan. Spearheading the media circus that invades the God-fearing town of Hillsboro is cynical Baltimore newspaperman E.K. Hornbeck (Denis O'Hare), based on H.L. Mencken.
Hughes deftly establishes the small-town climate of unswerving, plainspoken faith by planting a traditional white Gospel quartet on the upper deck of Santo Loquasto's stately wooden courtroom bleachers, which also house a large chunk of the audience, doubling as trial spectators and jury. (Loquasto also did the unfussy period costumes.) In a pre-show performance and at intervals throughout the play, the singers, accompanying themselves on banjo and guitar, deliver rousing renditions of religious anthems like "Down by the Riverside" and "I Shall Not Be Moved," as well as the anti-Darwin ditty "You Can't Make a Monkey Out of Me."
From that folksy warm-up, the staging makes a striking shift to a dramatic opening that evokes both the McCarthy era and the most famous theatrical allegory for that historical chapter, Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." The ensemble enters through a wide central corridor and remains caught, tableau-like, in the chilling pool of Brian MacDevitt's light until the characters step forth, one or two at a time, to begin their role in the story.
The atmosphere then cranks up another notch when excitable preacher Rev. Brown (Byron Jennings) unfurls a "Read Your Bible" banner across the courthouse, kickstarting a frenzy of commercial activity from hot dog and lemonade vendors to rooms for rent and Bible sales. The start of the trial also brings out the protesters, bearing signs that read "Take Back America for Christ" and "The One Great Evil Is Evil-ution."
Bracing and vivid, this muscular start sets the tone for a remarkably brisk production, condensed from the original three acts to two, clocking in at a pithy two hours with no adverse signs of compression.
Dennehy gets a celebratory entrance, with Brady ushered into town as the savior come to protect folks from "the blasphemies of science." A national hero of the conservative religious right, the stout, smiling politician laps up the praise and dives into the welcome buffet. His ability to milk a photo opportunity likely would please Karl Rove. Fredric March went for melodramatic zealotry in the 1960 Stanley Kramer film, but Dennehy underplays Brady's fanaticism, never losing sight of his well-meaning humanity. While the play takes a firm stand against the prosecutor's rigid refusal even to consider opposing views, the actor never condescends to his character.
That dignified treatment plays into the basic respect maintained by Plummer's Drummond for his ideological opponent, even as he shoots down his dogmatic assertions.
Despite Brady's oratorical windiness, Drummond is the juicier role, and Plummer is magnificent. A crusty old man with his pants hitched up high, he has a wry sense of humor, a calmly confronting, irreverent style and zero tolerance for the unbending absolutism that set the trial in motion. Plummer adds his own layers of wily intelligence to the character's, his timing sharp as a tack. His delivery of Drummond's speech about the wonder of the individual human mind ("An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral") is a stirring display by an actor still at the peak of his considerable powers.
The play reaches its sustained crescendo in the gripping courtroom faceoff between the two men when, having stood by helplessly as his expert scientific witnesses have all been ruled irrelevant, Drummond puts Brady on the stand to examine the authority of the Bible. As Brady grows progressively more flustered and crumbles under Drummond's fiery attack, the drama yields an unexpectedly nuanced conclusion in which the defense attorney's thoughtful response advocates openness while avoiding preachiness. Drummond's wordless final action, involving the Bible and Darwin's "Origin of the Species," still carries emotional heft.
Plummer and Dennehy are given colorful backup by O'Hare, who brings an enjoyable hint of Bert Lahr and even Groucho Marx to jaded quipster Hornbeck, a showy role originated by Tony Randall on Broadway in 1955 and played by Gene Kelly in the Kramer film.
Jennings seems a little low-key at first as the fervent preacher but fires up during his prayer meeting. As Scopes stand-in Bert Cates and Rachel, the reverend's daughter who loves him, Benjamin Walker and Maggie Lacey, respectively, could make stronger impressions. But even if the large ensemble doesn't always rise to the level of the formidable leads, this is a corker of a revival and a warhorse still charged with vitality, wit and wisdom, smartly tapped into America's past and present.