Issue Date: February 11, 2005
'Counsellor-at-Law' makes a case for itself
By RETTA BLANEY
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 doesnt realize is that hes abandoned more than just poverty and shabby living quarters. In Peccadillo Theater Companys production of Counsellor-at-Law, at the Theatre at St. Clements through March 6, Simon learns that moving up does not mean fitting in.
Hes not aware of the extent to which hes drifted away from the old neighborhood, said director Dan Wackerman in a phone interview before the plays opening. Hes been assimilated into the world of his wife and hes lost his identify, and his soul goes with it.
Its easy to see why this 1931 work by Elmer Rice, which had a critically successful run at Peccadillos 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, Simons 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, Simons devoted secretary, also could have been a type, but shes not. MacEwan makes her human.
Wackerman says having Rubinstein in the lead role is key because he brings something John Barrymore couldnt in the film version. The Jewishness of the character is essential. Its one of the main points of his identity. I would never have played down Simons Jewishness.
The anti-Semitism in Counsellor-at-Law is subtle. Its 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 wifes or stepchildrens disgust.
What finally threatens Simons 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. Id known the boy since he was a baby, Simon tells his wife. Why, I never would have had a nights sleep if Id 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 hes been looking for. Francis Clark Baird, one of the silk-stocking babies in the Bar Association, wants to get Simon disbarred. Ive locked horns with this Baird a good many times, and hes always come out on the short end, Simon says. He doesnt like taking that from a nobody, from an East Side boy that started in the police court.
But its 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 Simons success, Wackerman says. Jews were finally starting to achieve some degree of success and were breaking through the institutions with great resistance. Thats why you couldnt and shouldnt update this play. Its 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 Simons 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. Its hard to imagine him doing that now. Hes a very compromised man and thats 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 Blaneys 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.
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National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005
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