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A CurtainUp Review
Counsellor at Law

The Pecadillo Theater Company Moves Counsellor-at-Law Uptown for a Welcome Second Run. John Rubinstein Again Leads a Refreshingly Large Ensemble.

John Rubinstein & Lanie MacEwan
John Rubinstein & Lanie MacEwan
When the Peccadillo Theater Company's artistic director Dan Wackerman pulled Elmer Rice's Counsellor-at-Law out of the theatrical attic last year, he found that audiences agreed that it was still an entertaining and flavorful melodrama. Understandably so.

Mr. Wackerman's lively production brought Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Rice's 1931 drama back to vivid and still absorbing life. The play's enduring appeal, the production's satisfyingly large and able cast led by a well-known actor John Rubinstein -- not to mention the bargain-priced tickets ($15) -- sent enough people flocking to the Peccadillo's home on Bank Street to seed another run.

While Counsellor-at-Law started out on Broadway its just opened second run is near the Broadway theater district but not in it, and in a venue larger than the one on Bank Street but smaller than any Broadway house. Attribute this to economic considerations -- the same considerations that have made producers warmly embrace the solo show and see red (as in red ink in their ledgers) at the idea of a play with this big a cast. But why waste time fretting over the good old, pre-bottom line casting days, instead of rejoicing at this second chance to catch this splendid revival.

Even though this Peccadillo staging's status as Off--Broadway rather than Off-Off-Broadway has escalated the ticket price, theater goers are still getting a big bang for their buck. All the key players (as well as almost the entire original ensemble) of the Bank Street production are back on hand. Mr. Wackerman again expertly steers them in and out of Chris Jones's handsome Art Deco law office with its imposing windowed view of Manhattan New York's skyscrapers (this time around lit --and expertly so, by Tyler Micoleau) so that the three hours whiz by without a single dead spot.

In case you doubt that this is a play with an all-ages and taste appeal, consider that the CurtainUp critics registering their opinion on this production are several generations apart. Our twenty-something critic Jenny Sandman, who has a decided penchant for hard-edged, contemporary work, found the downtown production as worthwhile and enjoyable as I did when I saw it in its new uptown home. To add to Jenny's enthusiastic review which follows this section, a few follow-up comments based on Saturday afternoon's performance at the Theatre at St. Clements.

The popularity of all the law and order TV shows attest to the longstanding dramatic appeal of a legal setting. Rice, who was himself a lawyer, created a complex and rounded character in George Simon as the epitome of the immigrant who doggedly pursues the money, power and social mobility of the American Dream. However, Counsellor like the Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene, also presents a panorama of character sketches that contribute to the play's vitality. Despite the clouds hovering over George's career and marriage which make that big window in his office something of a smoking gun, the first scene is reminiscent of a screwball comedy and full of funny zingers. Many of the personalities we encounter are stock types, but as part if the parade entering and exiting the Simon and Tedesco law offices they create a colorful canvas filled with images illustrating the ups and downs of city life during 1930s. Wackerman and his splendid cast execute this combination of melodrama and human comedy portraiture with all the required style, humor and emotion.

While John Rubinstein conveys the self-assurance of the self-made man with a society wife, he also lets us see the lingering connection to his roots and the chink in his armor that's evident in his reverential, almost obsequious behavior towards the wife who is the only person this otherwise savvy guy completely misreads. When Simon's hard-won success is threatened, Rubinstein peels off the veneer acquired over the years to to reveal the coarser-grained and more vulnerable slum kid beneath the hot shot lawyer and socialite.

If I had to single out the performer who conveys the most meaning and feeling with a look, it would be a tossup between Lanie MacEwan as George's devoted secretary and Mary Carver as his mother. And if I had to choose the funniest, I'd be torn between Tara Sand's oh so Noo-yawk switchboard operator and Robert O'Gorman's process server and occasional private detective.

Counsellor-at-Law has often been tagged as a Jewish play and is in fact one of anthologist Ellen Schiff's selection for her 2004 collection for Applause Books, Six Great American Plays, There is indeed an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in George Simon's snobbish society wife, the insensitive client who uses the phrase Jewing down, and the establishment lawyers who are less than happy with an erstwhile ghetto Jew's front page making success. However, Rice's characters speak to all first generation Americans struggling to accommodate their backgrounds and values to the economic and social realities of the milieu in which they want to succeed.

The dictionary definition of peccadillo is sin, and is related to impeccable which means without flaw. It would be a sin to miss the Peccadillo Company's impeccable revival.

Street Scene -- Williamstown Theatre Revival Berkshires)
Street Scene (Opera)
Talk of The Town -- the Peccadillo's first venture into a new musical.


Except for the change of venue, performance schedule and ticket information, the Production notes of the original review apply now. I've relisted the cast, since there are a few changes in the ensemble and also included the roles played by each actor.

Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street (9th/10th Avenues), 212-868-4444
Directed by Dan Wackerman
Current Cast: D. Michael Berkowitz (Peter Malone, Francis Clark Baird), Dennis J. Burke (Henry Susskind), Mary Carver (Mrs. Simon), Nat Chandler (Roy Darwin), Corinne Fitamant (Dorothy Dwight), Beth Glover (Cora Simon), Nell Gwynn (Zedorah Chapman), Steven Hack (Breitstein), David Lavine (Harry Becker), Mark Light-Orr (Tall Man, Herberg Weinberg, David Simon), Lanie MacEwan (Regina Gordon), Sal Mistretta (John Tedesco), Robert O'Gorman (Charles MacFadden), Ginger Rich (Sarah Becker), Justin Riordan (Richard Dwight) John Rubinstein (George Simon), Tara Sands (Bessie Green), Gael Schaefer (Goldie), Brian N. Taylor (Arthur Sandler) and Ashley West (Lillian Larue).
From 1/25/04 to 3/06/04; opening 1/30/04.
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm.
Tickets are $55.
-- the original review by Jenny Sandman

Peccadillo Theater Company is known for producing forgotten American classics; that is, exhuming plays that would otherwise be consigned to the dustbin of history. Elmer Rice's intricate, densely layeredCounsellor-at-Law is their latest retrieved classic.

At the time Counsellor-at-Law was written, large-cast (28 characters, most of whom are not integral to the central conflict ) hefty plays (a 3-hour run time) like this were not all that unusual, and it was a fine example of the prevailing social and political ethic. Elmer Rice (The Adding Machine, Street Scene, Dream Girl) was a popular playwright best known for his depictions of the working class.

Counsellor-at-Law had a 292 performance Broadway production in 1931 and became a movie with John Barrymore in 1933. However, except for a 1977 and 1993 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, it's faded into obscurity -- so the Peccadillo's fine and brave revival is most welcome.

The play gives us an authentic and richly detailed look at a 1930s New York law office. George Simon, has worked hard all his life to escape the Second Avenue Jewish tenement community into which he was born. With a flourishing law practice and a rich society wife he finally feels successful. But an anti-Semitic rival uncovers a dirty secret in George's past. It seems that he once cooked up a false alibi for a kid from the old neighborhood. This well intended action now threatens to lead to his disbarment and loss of everything he values, including his wife.

Many characters and subplots are woven into the main story and the large cast playing them include numerous standouts. John Rubinstein of Children of a Lesser God and Pippin fame is a fine George Simon and Lanie MacEwan is excellent as Regina, his secretary. They are the play's dominant figures albeit in vastly different ways. Rubinstein (reminiscent of the father from Frazier) plays Simon as a garrulous, likeable fellow who conveys a sense of assurance about his place in the world. Regina is more than his secretary. She's a competent, methodical office manager but MacEwan lets us see that she's much more than a devoted assistant but obviously a little in love with her boss. The power dynamic between her and Rubinstein brings both characters to life. Beth Glover as George's wife, Cora, does an excellent job of portraying this woman's inherent shrewishness and snobbery. With a cast this large, it's impossible to point out the strengths of all.

Chris Jones' set makes the most of the small stage, and Amy Bradshaw's costumes are full of the detail and flavor often lost in 1930s wardrobes.Thanks to Dan Wackerman's nimble direction, the three hours move along swiftly and enjoyably. Like Mint Theatre further uptown, the Peccadillo has become a favorite with all who crave an old-fashioned evening of entertainment. Counsellor-at-Law will not disappoint.

Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Dan Wackerman
With D. Michael Berkowitz, Dennis J. Burke, Mary Carver, Beth Glover, Nell Gwynn, Steven Hack, James M. Larmer, David Lavine, Mark Light-Orr, Lanie MacEwan, Racheline Maltese, Joseph Martin, Madeleine Martin, Sal Mistretta, Robert O'Gorman, Ginger Rich, John Rubinstein, Tara Sands, Brian N. Taylor and Ashley West
Lighting Design by Dana Sterling
Set Design by Chris Jones
Costume Design by Amy Bradshaw
Running time: Three hours with one ten-minute intermission
Peccadillo Theater Company, Bank Street Theatre, 155 Bank Street; 212-868-4444
May 9th through May 30th
Thursdays through Sundays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm.
All tickets $15
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on May 16th performance
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