NEW YORK - The impeccable Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind creates a mood before anyone speaks a line of the script. Walk into the Lyceum Theatre and you're in the Southern town where a high school teacher is in jail for telling a class about Charles Darwin and evolution.
A good-natured gospel quartet stands on a balcony at stage-rear and sings hymns. Some of the real audience has purchased stage seats; they're led to Santo Loquasto's courtroom set, where they become onlookers who jam the proceedings - a fictionalized version of the Scopes "monkey trial" of 1925.
Everything about the production - adroitly led by two remarkable actors, Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy - puts you in the era. The mood that director Doug Hughes creates, plus the sheer force of the cast, overwhelm Inherit the Wind's weaknesses.
The play is highly entertaining, but uneasily glib and a bit off-key in its courtroom battling. Plus, it has a key character - a reporter from the Baltimore Herald - so cynically drawn and loose-mannered, he seems to have sauntered in from a lowbrow burlesque skit. (He's played solidly, which means annoyingly, by Denis O'Hare.)
But there's a lot more to Inherit the Wind than courtroom scenes and an unlikely character. The play is meaty and beautifully marbled; it represents the either/or quality of a town of the faithful without taking potshots. And it advances the fundamental American argument for free speech in a way that highlights the virtues of rigorous thinking. Best of all, it never lectures the audience.
It's got a number of dramatic high points, which Plummer and Dennehy reach nimbly. Dennehy, his wide smile broadcasting easy self-assurance, takes command of the townsfolk in his portrayal of Matthew Harrison Brady - based on William Jennings Bryan, the role Fredric March played in the 1960 film version. He's the hotshot prosecutor called in by the state (which is unnamed) to get a guilty verdict against Bert Cates (Benjamin Walker), the teacher who broached the taboo topic.
Plummer sparkles in the role of Henry Drummond - in real life, Clarence Darrow, portrayed on the screen by Spencer Tracy. He walks slightly stooped, and with his mind always in high gear - you can see and feel the wheels turning. He's animated, engaged, a man with a clear sense of himself and of the possibility of failure. When his young defendant laments that his battle is a lost cause, Plummer neatly tosses off the line that makes Inherit the Wind prescient and current. "Well," he asks, "you don't suppose this kind of thing is ever finished, do you?"
Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, directed by Doug Hughes, set and costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Brian MacDevitt.
The cast: Christopher Plummer (Henry Drummond), Brian Dennehy (Matthew Harrison Brady), Denis O'Hare (E.K. Hornbeck), Byron Jennings (the reverend), Terry Beaver (the judge).
Playing at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. Tickets: $26.25-$96.25. Information: 1-800-432-7250 or www.inheritthewind