At a time when public opinion of lawyers is at such a low ebb, there’s an added fascination in a play written by a trial lawyer about moral and ethical in-fighting between new- and old-school lawyers. But lawyer-playwright-actor Henry G. Miller still has a lot of rewriting to do before he fully mines the promise of his first full-length play. He has spent too much time setting up a dramatic situation that should pay off big in act two, and too little time on that act, which comes across as perfunctory. What he has done, however, is give that larger-than-life actor Kevin Conway another juicy role in which to strut his stuff.
Miller seems to have focused his energies on the character Conway plays so skillfully, Alex Sterling, a “shark’s shark” of a litigator who is a non-WASP, non-Ivy League partner from the wrong side of the tracks (the Bronx rather than Bronxville) in a staid old firm riddled with his antitheses.
It’s losing business, which is naturally worrisome since its partners have trouble living on a half-a-million a year and its two straight-out-of-law-school newcomers are each receiving $ 90,000. Conway’s Sterling suggests they take on a tobacco company as a client. The old-school majority, led by WASP Thomas Hudson (Miller), turns down the idea for moral reasons.
But Sterling, whose morality is summed up in the words “billable hours,” prevails when he talks the firm into representing a chemical company being sued because of a 20-year-old toxic dump.
Conway’s Sterling, whose pot belly is even the wrong figure for the law firm at which he works, learns that the chemical company knew of the toxicity of the dump at the time because of a slew of memos. In order to never lie about them, he opts never to see them, talking another member of the firm, Grant Bradford (Sam Freed), into signing an affidavit denying the existence of any such incriminating evidence. By a far too casual act for such an uptight WASP, Bradford allows one of the firm’s hotshot newcomers (Lauree Dash) to stumble across the memos. Her ethical morality completes the firm’s decline and fall.
Playwright Miller has not avoided clichs in dialogue, characters or relationships, and his play is sometimes stilted, old-fashioned and by-the-book, repeating quips too often. But it also has some good, biting shoptalk and the central contretemps revealed in act two has real potential. He must now fulfill it, beginning with fleshing out his play’s other characters. Given how underwritten the character of Grant Bradford is, it’s not surprising that Keir Dullea, originally announced as Conway’s co-star, withdrew from the production.
Conway dominates the production right from its start, in which he directly tells the audience that “law is the opiate of the people” and that lawyers are the “new Jesuits,” the “new rabbis.” With the exception of Dash in the play’s one female role and Tom Ligon as the chemical company’s gaudy Southern president , the rest of the cast and their underwritten roles are too pale. A more evenly matched battle is needed.
Veteran director John Berry’s direction is OK without ever being truly imaginative or invigorating. Richard Ellis’ old-money New York City law office setting has the right look— flag, Lincoln portrait and all.
With a possible Off Broadway New York run in mind, “Lawyers” is set to open the 1998 season of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut, June 15 to 27, following its May 26-June 13 Emelin run.