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

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; http://www.telecharge.com. 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.)

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