`Execution of Justice' echoes 1979 case. Pair of San Francisco crimes analyzed in courtroom drama

Execution of Justice Play written and directed by Emily Mann. The 1979 trial of Dan White for the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk has become the subject of a troubled and troubling semi-documentary drama. Emily Mann's ``Execution of Justice,'' at the Virginia Theatre, employs trial transcripts, reportage, and interviews in a free-form assemblage of people and events involved in the sensational crime and its prosecution.

A succession of opening scenes and projected TV news clips establish the basic facts of the case. Author-director Mann quickly turns the stage over to a pair of symbolic antagonists. A veteran cop (Stanley Tucci) rails profanely against the moral and civic decline resulting from San Francisco's laxity towards homosexuals. The cop is indirectly answered by Sister Boom Boom (Wesley Snipes), a black transvestite dressed as a nun, who recites a litany of police brutality and slyly hints at the possibility of revenge against Dan White.

The lengthy first-act exposition recalls how White, a former policeman, fireman, and a Vietnam war veteran, resigned for personal reasons from his elected office of city supervisor. Pressed by conservative, blue-collar supporters, he attempted to recall the resignation. After tentatively agreeing to White's reinstatement, Mayor Moscone appointed someone else to his supervisor post. Shattered by what he considered the mayor's betrayal, White took the lives of Moscone and Milk, another supervisor (identified as having been the first openly ``gay'' elected official in the United States).

As its two-edged title suggests, ``Execution of Justice'' abounds in ironic anomalies and contradictions.

White (John Spencer) sees himself as an honest, hard-working conservative loner battling an entrenched liberal majority. The law-and-order champion is prosecuted by a law-and-order attorney (Gerry Bamman). But it is defense counsel Douglas Schmidt's (Peter Friedman) emotional appeal that sways the sympathetically disposed jurors.

Depicting his client as an outstanding high-school athlete who became a valuable public servant, Schmidt suggests that consumption of ultrasweet junk food (the much publicized ``Twinkies defense'') may have caused the violent trauma that rendered White capable of murder.

Miss Mann mocks the jargon of a clutch of psychiatrists simply by quoting from their testimony.

In the end the jury finds White guilty only of voluntary manslaughter. The lenient verdict led to rioting by homosexuals and their sympathizers. Dan White served only five years in prison and committed suicide after being released on parole.

The author has been hard pressed to keep her voluminous material within the limits of even a long two-act play. One of her devices is to intercut the trial testimony with interludes, observations, and reminiscences by individuals who knew Dan White and/or his victims. While this is useful background for the spectator, it sometimes distracts from the central drama. On the other hand, one of the play's most powerful interludes is Dan White's police-station interrogation.

Whether major or minor, the numerous real-life characters and composites are acted with conviction. The cast includes Mary McDonnell (Mrs. White), Adam Redfield (Milk's young friend), as well as Lisabeth Bartlet, Jon DeVries, Donal Donnelly, Nicholas Hormann, Earle Hyman, and Nicholas Kepros, most of whom play more than one role.

Set designer Ming Cho Lee has created an abstract playing space for the court-centered scenes and has used photo murals along the theater's side walls to picture the court building. Seating a group of spectators at the back of the stage apparently is intended to suggest a jurors' section and an arena-style staging.

The production abounds in lighting effects and audio-visual aids, including film sequences from Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen's Oscar-winning ``The Times of Harvey Milk.'' Jennifer von Mayrhauser designed thecostumes.

``Execution of Justice'' began as a commissioned work by San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company and premiered professionally at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It has been presented at several other regional playhouses, including Washington's Arena Stage, which is credited with helping develop the production's audio and video. The House of Blue Leaves Black comedy by John Guare. Directed by Jerry Zaks.

Staged with antic aptitude by Jerry Zaks, the Lincoln Center Theater revival of John Guare's ``The House of Blue Leaves'' realizes all of the play's uninhibited farcicality without losing any of its blackness as a tragedy of frustration. The 1971 New York Drama Critics' Circle Prize-winner exemplifies eccentric playmaking with a zestful combination of the hilarious and the horrific.

``The House of Blue Leaves'' deals with a round of preposterous events occurring in Queens, New York, on Oct. 4, 1965, the day Pope Paul visited the borough. Principal among those who become involved in the event are Artie Shaughnessy (John Mahoney), a zoo keeper afflicted with an ambition to write movie song hits; Artie's mentally disturbed wife, Bananas (Swoosie Kurtz); his girlfriend, Bunny (Stockard Channing), whose fantasy world is inspired by fan magazines; and his AWOL GI son, Ronnie (Ben Stiller), who is preparing to blow up the Pope.

The rise and inevitable fall of Artie's unfounded hopes provide the central impetus of a savagely comic work that unfolds with the energy of an animated cartoon and the surrealism of a nightmare.

Mr. Guare's bizarre, iconoclastic, and ultimately chilling mixture of comedy and disaster is not for all tastes.

But ``The House of Blue Leaves,'' which runs through April 27 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, could scarcely have been more adroitly dealt with than by Mr. Zaks and his actors. The production was designed by Tony Walton (scenery), Paul Gallo (lighting), and Ann Roth (costumes).

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to `Execution of Justice' echoes 1979 case. Pair of San Francisco crimes analyzed in courtroom drama
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today