A Time to Kill, the stage version of John Grishman’s best-selling 1989 novel, opened on Oct. 20 at the Golden Theatre. Tony-winner Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote the adaptation with Ethan McSweeny (Gore Vidal’s The Best Man) directing. The cast includes Sebastian Arcelus (House of Cards, Elf), Fred Douglas Thompson (The Emperor Jones), former U.S. Senator Fred Dalton Thompson (Law & Order), Tom Skerritt (Picket Fences, Cheers), Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), Tonya Pinkins (Caroline or Change), and Ashley Williams. This is the first theatrical version of a Grisham novel, though several of his legal-oriented works have been made into films including Kill (1996) which starred Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, and Samuel L. Jackson.
The plot focuses on a young idealistic lawyer defending an African-American client who takes the law into his own hands when he kills the two white men who committed an unspeakable crime against his young daughter in their small Mississippi town. Did the critics deliver a favorable verdict? Here are excerpts from the major reviews.
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
“If you’re a Grisham obsessive with a C-note burning a hole in your pocket—not to mention two-and-a-half hours of time to slay—by all means, come on down, y’all! But in a Broadway season quickly beginning to gather its own steam, this mechanical legal procedural cannot, I’m afraid, even outdo the competition in constant rotation on TV.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“Director Ethan McSweeny tries to suggest the pressure-cooker atmosphere with projections and a second-act shocker. But the production remains flat, lacking the minimum of suspense required for a white-knuckle thriller. Enlivening the proceeds are some strong turns from the supporting cast, including former Republican US Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson as the formidable Judge Noose.”
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Like last year’s botched book-to-stage experiment Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Time to Kill feels like a copy of a copy. The action unfolds in and around the slatted-wood courtroom. The stage constantly spins and stops to showcase various perspectives, while the audience becomes the jury. Ironically, this take by Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) lacks a strong point of view.”
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press
“Eighteen scenes whip by, each triggering a twist of the massive central turntable and a long pause with some ominous music as various props are arranged. It gets tiresome and clunky. That also applies to the book, an adaptation by Rupert Holmes that simplifies the complex motives and emotions of the men and women in the book and film to the part of cartoons.”
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
“Perhaps the main case for this page-to-stage venture—just like the many upbeat musicals molded out of brand-name movies that populate Broadway—is that it’s pure comfort food. This is the theatrical equivalent of summer beach reading or the almost obsolete low-concept popcorn movie, which means it’s not without a certain appeal.”
Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“Holmes’ Kill is more sharply focused than the 1996 film adaptation of the novel, and does a better job of incorporating folksy humor into the disturbing and at times pedantic story. The lack of cinematic melodrama helps—though this production does include creepy projected images (designed by Jeff Sugg) such as a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning house, accompanied by incidental music (by Lindsay Jones) that’s heavy on wailing blues-guitar riffs.”
Linda Winer, Newsday
“As the ambitious district attorney, Patrick Page—Broadway’s original Green Goblin—has an unctuous basso that booms as if it has risen from the bottom of a deep, slimy well. Tom Skerritt, in his Broadway debut, leans with amusing confidence into the drunken dissipation of the disbarred master lawyer. Only Fred Dalton Thompson, who has dominated throngs as a real Tennessee senator and as the D.A. on Law & Order, seems uneasy as the judge. Sebastian Arcelus has a pleasant sincerity as the crusading lawyer, Ashley Williams is fun to watch but hard to believe as the legal intern with the posh background and an uncanny way of saving the day with just the right obscure fact. Tonya Pinkins, who gets more wonderful with every nonmusical role, is reduced to brief cameos as Carl’s anguished wife. Where’s the Broadway vehicle for her?”
Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“Rupert Holmes’ stage adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, comes at a sweet moment for the author, whose belated sequel to that 1989 book, Sycamore Row, is being published this month. But a 25-year time lapse that works on the page doesn’t necessarily play on the stage, and there’s a distinctly dated feeling to the material—not the topic of Southern racism, but the youthful idealism of its hero. And despite a sturdy ensemble production helmed by Ethan McSweeny, this courtroom drama feels as if it were made for an earlier, less cynical era.
Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“Despite some longish scene changes on James Noone’s turntable set, director Ethan McSweeny keeps the action moving to the decisive closing arguments. There isn’t much subtlety in A Time to Kill—Lindsay Jones’ overly intrusive underscore cues up at every dramatic moment—but it manages to convey a mostly satisfying sense of justice being served.”
Matt Windman, AM New York
“While practically none of the performances are deep or nuanced, the cast conveys a sense of urgency that helps make this courtroom drama into the cheesy but crowd-pleasing vehicle that it was intended to be.”
Steven Suskin, Huffington Post
“The final 20 minutes of the courtroom drama A Time to Kill provide crackling theatrics, as idealistic folksy small-town lawyer Sebastian Arcelus goes up against slimily wily district attorney (and governor-nominee) Patrick Page. Unfortunately, those 20 minutes of high drama come after two full hours of lumbering storytelling.”