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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

'Counsellor-at-Law' makes a case for itself


Through hard work from the time he was a child, George Simon has left behind the Jewish ghetto for a successful law practice and a society wife. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s abandoned more than just poverty and shabby living quarters. In Peccadillo Theater Company’s production of “Counsellor-at-Law,” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s through March 6, Simon learns that moving up does not mean fitting in.

“He’s not aware of the extent to which he’s drifted away from the old neighborhood,” said director Dan Wackerman in a phone interview before the play’s opening. “He’s been assimilated into the world of his wife and he’s lost his identify, and his soul goes with it.”

It’s easy to see why this 1931 work by Elmer Rice, which had a critically successful run at Peccadillo’s downtown theater last spring, is being restaged now in a larger space. The play creates a lively world of very New York characters working in, and buzzing in and out of, Simon’s Fifth Avenue office suite. Every detail of this production contributes to the effect, starting with the set and its four large windows with the midtown skyline in the background.

As for the actors, they inhabit their parts with enthusiasm. They really seem to be having fun in a play that deals with anti-Semitism yet is very funny at times. John Rubinstein, a Tony winner for “Children of a Lesser God” who made his Broadway debut as the lead in the musical “Pippin,” heads an ensemble of 20 and is perfect as George. Tara Sands as Bessie, the fast-talking receptionist with a thick New York accent, is a hoot. With a less talented actress, Bessie could have been a caricature, but Sands made her so real she kept reminding me of a receptionist on a campaign for which I was press secretary years ago. Lanie MacEwan, as Regina, Simon’s devoted secretary, also could have been a type, but she’s not. MacEwan makes her human.

Wackerman says having Rubinstein in the lead role is key because he brings something John Barrymore couldn’t in the film version. “The Jewishness of the character is essential. It’s one of the main points of his identity. I would never have played down Simon’s Jewishness.”

The anti-Semitism in “Counsellor-at-Law” is subtle. “It’s the genteel anti-Semitism of the time,” Wackerman says. “Jews were politely shut out of the country clubs and the higher echelons of WASP culture.”

Simon is blind to this on a personal level. His Gentile wife is disgusted by the money he earns from the “unsavory affaires de scandale” he handles and the two snobby young children from her first marriage barely tolerate Simon, but he is unaware of either his wife’s or stepchildren’s disgust.

What finally threatens Simon’s world is a past indiscretion. Years before he helped a young man from the old neighborhood fake an alibi. The boy had committed a petty crime, but because he had previous convictions, would have received a life sentence if convicted again. “I’d known the boy since he was a baby,” Simon tells his wife. “Why, I never would have had a night’s sleep if I’d let that boy go up the river for life.” He knew the boy would straighten himself out, which he did.

A rival lawyer learns of this act of kindness and seizes upon it as just the opportunity he’s been looking for. Francis Clark Baird, one of the “silk-stocking babies in the Bar Association,” wants to get Simon disbarred. “I’ve locked horns with this Baird a good many times, and he’s always come out on the short end,” Simon says. “He doesn’t like taking that from a nobody, from an East Side boy that started in the police court.”

But it’s more than just success in court that affronts Baird and the other silk-stocking babies of the Bar.

“The establishment, in the person of Baird, resents Simon’s success,” Wackerman says. “Jews were finally starting to achieve some degree of success and were breaking through the institutions with great resistance. That’s why you couldn’t and shouldn’t update this play. It’s very particular.”

The paradox of the story is really the idea of grace versus the law. In helping out someone from the old neighborhood years ago, an act that now threatens Simon’s standing in his new world, Simon was actually a better person, even though he committed a criminal act.

“Simon is really his savior, but he put himself at risk,” Wackerman says. “He did something unethical for moral reasons. It’s hard to imagine him doing that now. He’s a very compromised man and that’s what makes him such a wonderful American character. Audiences respond strongly, especially the attorneys.”

“Counsellor-at-Law” is a period piece that still works today because not only is it hugely entertaining it also makes one think about moral decisions and their consequences.

Retta Blaney’s latest book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and many others.

Related Web site

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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