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A CurtainUp Review
Counsellor at Law
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.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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