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‘A Time to Kill’ Brings Grisham Tale to Broadway: Review

Tonya Pinkins, from left, John Douglas Thompson and Sebastian Arcelus in
Tonya Pinkins, from left, John Douglas Thompson and Sebastian Arcelus in "A Time to Kill." The new Broadway drama is directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photographer: Carol Rosegg/O&M Co. via Bloomberg

A thriller of the sort rarely seen on Broadway these days, John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” brings a satisfying, if unsettling, courtroom drama to the Golden Theatre with an engaging cast playing juicy dramatic characters in a lurid tale spiked with a mild frisson of sex.

Set in Mississippi in the early 1980s, this is the story of a black father who has killed the two white men accused of brutally raping his 10-year-old daughter.

His defense is handled by scrappy white local lawyer, up against a state prosecutor angling to make the case his ticket to the governor’s mansion.

Assisting the lawyer are his booze-addled mentor and -- here’s the sex angle -- a smart, attractive female law student who seems indifferent to the fact that he’s married.

The 1996 film starred Matthew McConaughey; doing the honors in Rupert Holmes’s stage version is Sebastian Arcelus, who plays the besotted newspaper editor Lucas Goodwin in “House of Cards” on Netflix. He’s a bantamweight actor given ballast by the deeply felt performance as his client of John Douglas Thompson, who recently made an outstanding Othello off-Broadway, which should give you some idea of his latitude as an actor.

They’re supported by several veterans: Fred Dalton Thompson as the judge; Patrick Page (yes, the amiable villain Green Goblin, from “Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark”) as the prosecutor and Tom Skerritt as the mentor. Ashley Williams is the sharp-witted law student. Tonya Pinkins (“Caroline, or Change”) is the defendant’s wife.

Thin Roles

They’re all appealing, in comic-strip-thin roles. Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) has streamlined the narrative almost to the point of flash cards.

Ethan McSweeny’s staging, in contrast, is oddly stilted, with drawn-out scene changes (the sets are by James Noone) and portentous music (by Lindsay Jones) that drag the story-telling for no apparent reason.

Still, the twists and surprises of Grisham’s efficient revenge-tragedy come through and the actors are good company for a couple of hours; I never was bored.

At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine and Joe Mysak on books.

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