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Counsellor-at-Law

The Peccadillo's hit revival of Elmer Rice's 1931 warhorse about class warfare in Depression-era New York makes a sure-footed commercial transfer. Dan Wackerman helms with respect for period conventions, including an expansive canvas, huge cast and generous playing time. Play's social issues stand up well and have surprising bite.

Anchored by John Rubinstein’s sterling perf as a social-climbing lawyer whose ethical lapses come back to haunt him, the Peccadillo’s hit revival of Elmer Rice’s 1931 warhorse about class warfare in Depression-era New York makes a sure-footed commercial transfer. Sticking to company dictum of presenting lost or forgotten American classics without messing with their original format, artistic director Dan Wackerman helms with respect for period conventions, including an expansive canvas (three acts and nine scenes), huge cast (23 characters) and generous playing time (close to three hours). Although not as compelling as “Twelve Angry Men,” play’s social issues stand up well and have surprising bite.

A well-made play is not the same thing as a perfect play, and Rice’s indulgent first act is pure set-up. Happily, designers offer plenty of eyeball material to while away the lengthy wait for something to happen. Set designer Chris Jones works with two dominant materials — polished woodgrains that signify the old-world tradition and stability of the legal profession, and the open, airy glass of soaring windows that look up and outward to the modern city — to convey the conflicting dynamics in the office in midtown where George Simon (Rubinstein) practices law.

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Amy Bradshaw’s period-perfect costumes function with the same visual efficiency, capturing a cross-section of New York social classes with elegant silk frocks for Simon’s snooty wife, smart day dresses (worn with seamed, shadow-heeled hose) for the working-gal secretaries, and babushkas and shawls for the frightened immigrant mothers whose sons have run afoul of the law.

Between the heavy foot traffic and the electrifying buzz of the busy switchboard, George Simon’s office feels like the crossroads of the city, a place where stuffy corporate clients and sexy murderesses share a seat in the waiting room. But exposition is exposition, and Wackerman makes the mistake of bustling it along by over-amping the energy level of the acting and staging the busy scenes like a musical.

The hyper-active cast pretty much calms down by the second act, when it becomes clearer where this thing is going. In Rubinstein’s vigorously charming perf, Simon comes across as national poster boy for the spirit of American enterprise.

This son of poor Jewish immigrants has made his way to the top of his profession and is earning the big bucks as the go-to mouthpiece for congressmen, labor bosses and the gold-digger wives of important men. But this self-made man hasn’t entirely sold out, and Rubinstein gives him a disarming shot of romantic idealism to soften his raw ambition. While his suits are sharp and his teeth are good, in star’s savvy perf, this guy is just rough enough around the edges to suggest that he couldn’t untangle himself from his roots even if he wanted to.

More to the point, Simon retains enough sentimental feeling for his common-man class to do a fellow a good deed. Unfortunately, one past favor was entirely unethical, and when it comes to the attention of a powerful enemy who threatens to expose it, Simon realizes that he’s facing disbarment.

While this plot turn satisfies the dramatic need for conflict and reversal, what makes this period piece interesting is Rice’s left-wing take on Simon’s crisis. According to scribe’s socialist view, Simon’s criminal act of conscience wasn’t his real crime – it was marrying a woman outside his social class and adopting her materialist values as his own.

Beth Glover’s air of icy indifference makes it perfectly clear to the audience, if not to Simon, that his beloved wife Cora has no more loyalty than the gold-digging wives he represents in court. As the secretary who stands by him, Lanie MacEwan makes her mute adoration look noble, rather than sappy. Sal Mistretta, as Simon’s law partner, also puts a good face on the virtue of loyalty. And while a few of the minor players are allowed to overact shamelessly, most members of the large company — including Mary Carver as Simon’s mother and D. Michael Berkowitz, doing double duty as a couple of sharpster politicians — admirably uphold the lost art of ensemble acting.

As for John Rubinstein, his nicely shaded perf of a good man who has lost his sense of values gives Simon a solid inner core — and a slickly handsome exterior. The job’s his for as long as he wants it.

Counsellor-at-Law

Theater at St. Clement's; 99 seats; $55 top

  • Production: A Peccadillo Theater Company presentation of a play in three acts by Elmer Rice. Directed by Dan Wackerman.
  • Crew: Sets, Chris Jones; costumes, Amy Bradshaw; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Sean Tarjoto; dramaturg, William M. Peterson; production stage manager, Stefanie Petersen. Opened Jan. 30, 2005. Reviewed Jan. 26. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: George Simon - John Rubinstein Bessie Green - Tara Sands Charles McFadden - Robert O'Gorman John Tedesco - Sal Mistretta Herbert Weinberg - Mark Light-Orr Roy Darwin - Nat Chandler Cora Simon - Beth Glover Lena Simon - Mary Carver Sarah Becker - Ginger Rich Harry Becker - David Lavine <b>With:</b> Dennis J. Burke, Nell Gwynn, Gael Schaefer, Lanie MacEwan, Brian N. Taylor, Ashley West, D. Michael Berkowitz, Steven Hack, Corinne Fitamant, Justin Riordan
  • Music By: