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Counsellor-at-Law

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Beth Glover, Madeleine Martin, Joseph Martin, and John Rubinsteinin a publicity photo for Counsellor-at-Law(Photo © Kelly Miller)
Beth Glover, Madeleine Martin, Joseph Martin, and John Rubinstein
in a publicity photo for Counsellor-at-Law
(Photo © Kelly Miller)
Elmer Rice's melodrama Counsellor-at-Law was a remarkable hit in its day. The 1931 Broadway production, starring Paul Muni, lasted 292 performances, a long run for a drama in those days. The play returned to New York, in high-profile revivals, in 1932, 1933, 1942, and 1977. Over the past quarter century, however, has fallen into obscurity. Despite a 1993 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and inclusion in Ellen Schiff's fine new anthology, Awake & Singing: Six Great American Jewish Plays, it is known chiefly as a William Wyler movie from 1933, with John Barrymore flamboyantly miscast in the title role, and as the source of a handful of riveting scenes that students perform in acting classes.

The Peccadillo Theater Company's current revival is a testament to how drastically the American theater, as both art and industry, has changed over the past seven decades. In 1931, the economics of Broadway permitted Rice, who was producer and director of the premiere, to hire a cast of 27 actors for 28 roles (many of which are peripheral to the play's central narrative). Back then curtain time was 8:30; and producers didn't have to worry about paying overtime to stagehands and technicians. Dramas were divided in three acts and performed with two intermissions. Audiences had endurance, sitting still for an hour and a quarter of exposition before Rice got around to his principal conflict.

Things are different now: Producers of non-musical plays don't want to employ more than a handful of actors. They're on the lookout for scripts that require only one stage set, with the final curtain coming down well before 11pm. As for theatergoers, they prefer stage narratives streamlined; so playwrights tend to write short, elliptical scenes aimed to affect audiences like hammer blows.

The Peccadillo, an Off-Off-Broadway company that's celebrating its tenth anniversary, is performing Counsellor-at-Law on the minuscule stage of the Bank Street Theatre in Westbeth through May 30th. Under the direction of Dan Wackerman (the Peccadillo's Artistic Director), 20 capable actors navigate Rice's sophisticated dialogue at a vivacious clip. In deference to economics and contemporary taste, Wackerman has trimmed the script, though the running time is still almost three hours. Thanks to competent doubling, 23 of the play's original 28 characters remain. The result is a museum exhibition of what popular Broadway drama was like during the Great Depression.

Set in the offices of Simon & Tedesco, a small firm of attorneys in midtown Manhattan, Counsellor-at-Law concerns a crisis in the career of George Simon, one of the name partners. Simon, a Jew whose family emigrated from Eastern Europe when he was small, is a product of ethnically diverse Yorkville, then an unglamorous section of the Upper East Side. Trained as a clerk in a law office rather than at a university, Simon has become wealthy by undertaking matters -- divorces, paternity suits, will contests, and murder cases -- anathema to the Anglo-Saxons in their white-shoe firms. He has married one of the "four hundred" of Manhattan society; but remains an arriviste in the eyes of the social elite (including his stepchildren). Talented, dogged and charming, Simon is a gonster macher, a fixer, who knows the ins and outs of politics and the law.

Somewhere in Act Two, a past lapse of judgment returns to imperil Simon's law license, his social position, and his marriage. As Simon explains to his wife, he long ago had "a hand in framing up an alibi, so that a kid who had committed a number of petty crimes wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life in prison." Rice, always an ambitious playwright, surrounds this focal conflict with the complex day-to-day activities of an urban work place. With its numerous subplots and the comings and goings of lawyers, clients, politicians, clerks, secretaries, and receptionists, Counsellor-at-Law at times resembles Street Scene, the slice of life drama for which Rice won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize.

John Rubinstein, who previously won Drama-Logue and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for a West Coast revival of Counsellor-at-Law, is well cast as Simon. With receding hairline, close-cropped white hair, and over-snazzy togs, Rubinstein evokes Roy Cohn, a real-life George Simon (though generally portrayed as less sympathetic than Rice's protagonist). Assisted by Wackerman's direction and the resourcefulness of costume designer Amy Bradshaw, Rubinstein makes his character a credible mix of worldliness and innocence. He's likeable, even admirable, but too forward and flashy for the sedately tailored world to which he aspires. Rubinstein's Simon can outmaneuver adversaries in business but, in personal life (especially in dealing with his self-centered wife), he's as naïve as Pippin, the role this actor so memorably created in his 1972 Broadway debut.

What's noteworthy about the Peccadillo production is the way that, throughout a long evening, Wackerman maintains dramatic tension and keeps the play's complicated traffic patterns coursing efficiently across the tiny stage of the Bank Street Theatre. The rest of the cast may not be as distinguished as Rubinstein, but no one is out of place in the star's company. Wackerman has assembled an ensemble that is well-enough trained to handle the verbal sophistication of Rice's text and capable of creating the piquant variety of the drama's urban universe. It's inevitable, perhaps, that an Off-Off-Broadway undertaking this ambitious has uneven aspects. When, for instance, the youthful Mark Light-Orr, who tackles three roles in the course of the production, enters as Rubinstein's brother, one can't help noticing the generational disparity of the two men -- it's impossible to believe that Mary Carver, as old Mrs. Simon, could be the mother of both.

Beth Glover and Lanie MacEwan offer a noteworthy contrast as the principal women in Simon's life. Glover is the glacial, ungiving wife; MacEwan the indispensable secretary, whip-smart, zealous to supply whatever the boss needs, and frustrated by his failure to appreciate her. As the firm's daffy receptionist, Tara Sands displays comedic flair, deft timing and, in the end, enormous poignance. Sands never mugs or upstages anyone, but she can't help taking possession of every scene in which she appears.

The Peccadillo Theater Company has resuscitated Counsellor-at-Law with a polish and style that are admirable on an Off-Off-Broadway budget. But spectators are likely to find the enterprise largely of historical interest. Rice was writing about concerns that remain timely -- ambition, greed, misguided compassion, social and religious intolerance; yet this revival shows how perishable a stage play can be. Counsellor-at-Law is crucial to the development of 20th-century American drama; to the new millennium, though, it's as quaint as Uncle Tom's Cabin or Our American Cousin.


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