Although stage musicals are often adapted from movies, very few plays of other genres grow from big-screen precedents. But here's one big exception.
Dan Gordon turned his screenplay for "Murder in the First" into a legal drama that's receiving its premiere in a likable production from the fledgling Rubicon Theatre Company. With a cast that briefly includes Larry Hagman, the former J.R. Ewing of "Dallas," in a small role as a judge, it's at the Laurel Theatre in Ventura.
The 1995 movie featured Kevin Bacon as an abused convict on trial for murder in 1941. In the prison system for stealing only $5, the character had been caught trying to escape Alcatraz and was then beaten, slashed and stuck into a dark dungeon for three years, after which he killed the inmate who had blown the whistle about the escape. Christian Slater played his idealistic attorney, whose investigation exposed the brutality at Alcatraz in the '30s. The film was criticized for prolonged and graphic violence and for hyperactive cinematography.
By transforming the script into a play, Gordon eliminated most of these criticisms. The stage is an also-ran to the movies in depicting violence, and this production doesn't try. Also, duh, most plays totally lack cinematography.
Of course such metamorphoses can create new problems. The big challenges for Gordon and his production team, led by first-time stage director Linda Gray (yes, the same one who played J.R.'s wife on "Dallas"), were to condense the movie's many locations into just a few, and to compensate for the lack of a film editor in the transitions between scenes.
The challenges were met well enough, if not completely. Scenes at Alcatraz are gone. Designer Jeff G. Rack provided a courtroom that unfolds into a holding tank, as well as one office set that serves as two. While there are a few too many gaps between scenes, and a couple of odd moments that unsuccessfully try to mask these transitions with movie-like poses, original incidental music by the Rivera-Sunnarborg Duo usually sustains the mood admirably.
Because of the absence of the blood and guts of Alcatraz, we're expected to feel the impact of the ordeal suffered by the prisoner simply through what we're told and what he looks like. With actor Ted Neeley's face scrunched up like a frightened rodent's, we appreciate the prisoner's woes without dwelling on them.
Only once does it feel as if a little bit of the baby was thrown out with the Alcatraz bathwater. The movie showed the attorney personally investigating conditions at the prison, armed with a court order. The play leaves the audience in the dark over exactly how the attorney obtained all of his evidence.
Despite the loss of the torture scenes at the Rock and a sentimental scene in the movie that briefly imported the prisoner's sister, the play still lasts longer than the movie. Part of this is because of an intermission and scene changes, but the play also embellishes the relationship between the attorney (assured Joseph Fuqua, who's a little older than Slater was in the movie and looks more like an upstart attorney) and his colleague and girlfriend (Johanna McKay). As in the movie, at one point she's assigned to take the case out of her boyfriend's hands, but here she's more forceful about her motivations and about her professionalism in general.
"Murder in the First" breaks no new dramatic ground. It's a unabashed genre play, with the occasionally hokey conventions that the phrase can imply. The two sides in the conflict are basically all good and all bad, although Darrell Sandeen, playing the warden who's eviscerated on the witness stand, does manage to find a kernel of sympathy for his befuddled bureaucrat.
Still, the production succeeds on its own melodramatic terms, evoking a sense of revulsion at the patent injustice and a strong hope that it can be rectified--which, to Gordon's credit, doesn't happen as fully as we might have expected.
Anyone who might imagine that a play that's so old-fashioned and free of direct bloodshed might also be free of profanity and sex is mistaken; this prisoner is almost as horny as he is downtrodden, and Gordon's script treats this condition with a dash of bawdy humor.
An alert for "Dallas" fans: Hagman will play the judge, with a crisp sense of timing, only through the Saturday matinee, after which Dana Elcar will take over the role.
* "Murder in the First," Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 25. $27.50-$32.50. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Ted Neeley: Willie Moore
Joseph Fuqua: Henry Davidson
Johanna McKay: Mary McCasslin
Vern Urich: Henkin/Milton Glenn
John Fink: Byron Davidson
Larry Hagman/Dana Elcar: Judge Clawson
Rudolph Willrich: Hoolihan
Darrell Sandeen: Harold Humson
Written by Dan Gordon. Directed by Linda Gray. Set by Jeff G. Rack. Costumes by Abra Flores Paudler. Lighting by Kathi O'Donohue. Hair and makeup by Judi Lewin. Sound by Michael Rapp. Soundscape/music by Rivera-Sunnarborg Duo. Production stage manager Bradley D. Setser.