What can be dramatized so easily in film or television can be a daunting task on the stage. With no smooth transitions between scenes, director Shashin Desai chooses to use military personnel to effect crisp, precise stage business. It's suited to the play but still problematic, fragmenting early scene-building. But by the second act the power and authenticity of the story emerge with painful clarity. This adaptation of Abby Mann's original 50s Playhouse 90 production and Stanley Kramer's subsequent film is the unfolding drama of four German judges, who in 1947 are accused of war crimes. Though they took no direct part in the atrocities, their decisions freed others to commit offenses against humanity that stand as bold reminders of wartime excesses.
The central figure is Judge Dan Haywood (Barry Lynch), who comes to Berlin from the U.S. to adjudicate this weighty case. Joined by two other judges (John Gilbert and David Lloyd Wilson), the three hear arguments presented by outraged American prosecutor Col. Tad Parker (Henry LeBlanc) and German defense attorney Oscar Rolfe (Maury Sterling). Three of the accused appear to be Nazi sympathizers, but the fourth, Ernst Janning (Neil Larson), is a brilliant judge who hated the Nazis but loved his country, and, it was argued, stayed on the bench so he could render humane decisions. The issue is culpability: How important are the rules of law and country when morality is at stake?
First-rate performances are given by all 18 cast members. Particularly notable are Silvia Moore as a woman jailed because of her purported intimacy with a Jew; Larson as the stoic Janning, regretting his complicity; and David Fruechting as a man sterilized for being "mentally defective." Lynch easily convinces as the open-minded judge who follows the law but grasps the larger picture.
Mann's compelling and intellectually stimulating drama still resonates, though it is burdened with trying to articulate many points of view in two hours. Nonetheless, as the journalistic spotlight uncovers deeds done by the current administration and the military today, Desai's version blends art and argument, shining a light on human behavior in the best theatrical tradition.
"Judgment at Nuremberg," presented by and at International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jun. 17-Jul. 10. $32-42. (562) 436-4610.