The Peccadillo Theater Company, which produced the very enjoyable musical Talk of the Town earlier this season, has another winner on their hands with the powerful drama Counselor-At-Law . Written by Elmer Rice and first staged in 1931, Peccadillo originally presented the show last year, where it was successful enough to be brought back for its current Off-Broadway run.
The story looks at life inside the New York law offices of Simon and Tedesco, specifically hard-charging lawyer George Simon (John Rubenstein)- a sort of 1931 version of Johnny Cochran and F. Lee Bailey, with a touch of Lynn Stewart thrown in. A European Jewish immigrant, Simon grew up in poverty on New York's Lower East Side. Through hard work and perseverance, he (along with his partner- another immigrant) has built himself a thriving legal practice. Friends with the social elite, Simon has also leaned to play the political games of power.
The man is also a study in contradictions. He's not above padding his fees or stretching the rules somewhat, yet at the same time, he's more than willing to help those less fortunate- often footing the bills himself- so long as it doesn't require too much emotional investment. However for all his success, Simon still feels like an outsider, desperate to prove his worth and overcome prejudices. Prejudices which often show themselves in small but painful ways. (He also has a significant blind spot where his personal life is concerned.) In the midst of all this wheeling, dealing and power playing, a long-ago illegality done for a client may lead to the loss of all he holds dearóboth personally and professionally.
Counselor-At-Law is one of the strongest plays to appear in New York in recent memory. The story is solid and the direction by Dan Wackerman keeps the pace focused and smooth. Despite it lengthy running time, nearly three hours, the work rarely seems to drag. More importantly, mixed in among the heavy dramatic overtones are sections of comedy- thanks in no small part to Robert O'Gorman and his Irish brogue, and Tara Sands as the switchboard operator who has a problem or two of her own. These provide occasional welcome relief from the continual building of tension.
Rubinstein is superb as Simon, moving effectively through a range of situations which have him showing anger, tenderness, desperation, fear, and finally outright anguish. The last occurring when hurt strikes him from a direction he never expected. He's also helped by an excellent cast, with credit going to the theatre company for filling each of the more than 20 roles with a qualified actor. Among those who deserve special mention are Gael Schaefer as Simon's long suffering and very faithful secretary, and Sal Mistretta as his loyal partner.
The only scene in the play which has dated somewhat is also the only one with overt political overtones. But strangely enough, even as the political impact of the scene has faded, its emotional core has strengthened as Simon tries to justify his career path while the audience sees the fine line between pity and disgust, and wanting to help someone and walking away from them.
The single set by Chris Jones works well, as does the lighting by Tyler Micoleau and Amy Bradshaw's costumes.
Also in the cast are D. Michael Berkowitz, Dennis J. Burke, Mary Carver, Nat Chandler, Corinne Fitamant, Beth Glover, Nell Gwynn, Steven Hack, Jane Lanier, Mark Light-Orr, Lanie MacEwan, Ginger Rich, Justin Riordan, Brian N. Taylor and Ashley West.
The Peccadillo Theater Company
Theatre at St. Clement's
423 West 46th Street
Reservations: 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com
Running time: Approximately 3 Hours
Judd Hollander is the New York Correspondent for the London publication THE STAGE and the listings editor for the off-off-broadway review. He is also a member of the Drama Desk and the Drama League.