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Experimental feature

Bringing American classics to Broadway can be tricky, no matter how distinguished the creative team. I am salivating over the still-developing revival next season of Odets’ The Country Girl, starring Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand and directed by Mike Nichols, even while I recognise the perils of making its old-fashioned story resonate for anyone under 50.

A similar challenge – do the right names make for the right revival? – afflicts the just-opened Broadway production of the 1955 courtroom drama Inherit the Wind. In this corner, as Henry Drummond, we have Christopher Plummer, whose professional pedigree yawns back to Katharine Cornell. In that one, as Matthew Harrison Brady, is Brian Dennehy, crowned Tony winner for the American theatre’s heaviest of heavyweight roles: Willy Loman and James Tyrone.

In the event, however, of this Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play handsomely staged by Doug Hughes, what we witness is a fight fixed from the opening bell. Dennehy may draw the applause from the townsfolk, who are seated with some audience members in chorus-like wooden risers behind the courtroom, but Plummer, as a character based on the agnostic attorney Clarence Darrow, has the modern-day crowd on his side.

He also has the sharpest retorts. With his ample, brace-suspended girth, Plummer makes Drummond’s defence of thought – on the occasion of a schoolteacher indicted for teaching evolution – a defence not only of Darwin but also of every value associated with this-is-how-it’s-done acting.

The performance is absorbing, yet I am not sure I would recommend this otherwise predictable evening to anyone who had seen the Broadway revival with George C. Scott a decade ago. It is fine for a New York audience to feel superior to the anti-Darwinists in a story based on the famous 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in Tennessee, even as religious arguments repackaged as “creationism” are still among us. But, whatever the limits of the production’s schematically contrasted gospels, Christian and humanist, there is no question that Plummer is a joy to behold.

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