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|A CurtainUp Review
-- Pete, head of the corporate division of Michael Weller's fictional Arizona law firm.
Michael Weller's Buying Time is the second play about a facet of the American work place I've seen within a week. Tabletop focused on a narrow niche of the advertising business, Buying Time hones in on the more widely documented world of lawyers, with specific emphasis on pro bono work -- or, to be more exact, the threat of pro bono becoming an endangered species. While Buying Time is more in the agitprop tradition than Tabletop, both are among the more absorbing new plays I've seen in a while.
If the quote at the top of this review points to another "greed is good" saga, it is . . . and it isn't. Instead of an extended diatribe against lawyers, a dramatized lawyer's joke, Mr. Weller gives us a balanced view of lawyers who do give a damn about taking on cases that affect the general welfare and the career conflicts they face. (According to a recent news report, the pressures of our economy have squeezed the national average of attorneys' pro bono hours down to 25% of what they were only seven years ago, and most likely doctors are in the same bind).
Weller has drawn a behind-the-scenes portrait of D&R, a law firm whose initial mission is under siege, that mission being to blend profit and pro bono work -- the high profile, environmental cases being "rainmakers" for the corporate division which in turn supports the pro bono effort. As D&R has managed, at least until the play begins, to combine doing good with doing well, so Buying Time is a social consciousness play which is also a nifty, well-written and entertaining drama. Its flaws are mitigated by its strengths.
Unlike any new play you're likely to see further uptown, or even in larger Off-Broadway venue, Buying Time features a generous cast of fourteen excellent actors (too many for me to write in detail about all performances) and, thanks to Mark Symeczak's artfully flexible set design, its eleven scenes whiz us to ten different locations (Tim Cramer's pulsing incidental music making for seamless transitions). The play opens in a motel room where the key D&R lawyers are celebrating the end of an environmental case which has toppled Arizona's governor.
The rosy glow of victory is dimmed when Max, (Chuck Montgomery), the pro bono team's chief announces that he's come to see the firm's Rule 7 as a dinosaur (20% of the firm's work to be pro bono with the lawyers paid out of general income). He's leaving the firm that has grown from fifteen to eighty-seven partners for a new start with a small more ordinary firm to "buy time" with the wife and kids he's neglected.
Max's departure leaves D&R's best litigator, Bennett (Lee Sellars) the "last Passionate Pilgrim" and next managing director to keep the timber and mining interests -- the "extractive mafia" -- at bay. Another case, on behalf of the endangered bird, the Grayhawk, has been turned over to Carter Van Zant (Mark H. Dold), an inexperienced and outspoken associate in the real estate department.
The new case is an obvious metaphor for D&R and embroils Bennett in a personal as well as career crisis -- the personal crisis is actually not separate from the career issue since his marriage to the charming and ambitious Jobeth (think Tipper Gore -- Monique Fowler even looks a bit like her!) has become very much a business partnership with little time for passion and fun. His involvement with the Grayhawk case is prompted and complicated by Christine (Jennifer Gibbs ), an idealistic but tough young lawyer.
The play's strongest scenes are the ones that take place in the various D&R inner sanctums, but the male-female complications are smartly scripted and keenly performed by Fowler and Gibbs. Actually Jennifer Trimble who plays Margot, another woman lawyer, provides the most subtle romantic moment when she tries to comfort Bennett in his hour of defeat.
The Barbarians at D&R's throat are more talked about than seen, with the exception of the Act One windup at the garishly furnished estate of the client from hell, Laird Sutter (Chuck Montgomery metamorphosing from the idealistic departing partner, Max, into a man who epitomizes the "extractive mafia"). Sutter's hard-drinking, tough-talking wife (Irene McDonnell) and their airhead son (Andy Powers) bring a much needed touch of over-the-top humor to the firm's very serious situation.
Do the good guys triumph, or the Barbarians? Does Bennett weather his career and marital crisis? It's definitely worth finding out for yourself.
With this kick-off play to its third season at its comfortable 14th Street home, the Hypothetical Theatre Company's artistic director (who directs this production) once again displays a flair for provocative, well acted and staged entertainment. At $19 a ticket it's also one of the best bargains in town.
Heart of Art Michael Weller's last play with Hypothetical, also about success and work.