Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Theatre at St. Clement's, Manhattan
Elmer Rice, nee Reizenstein, an American/Jewish writer of the ‘20s and ‘30s, did not necessarily focus on Jewish characters and issues, though he made no secret of his own roots. He was interested in experimental techniques, moving into expressionism, for example, with “The Adding Machine.” As for the substance of his plays, he was invariably concerned with the plight of the working man and other issues of human rights.
But Rice’s 1931 play, “Counsellor-at-Law” is clearly about a Jewish boy, one George Simon, who rises from humble beginnings to become the “mostly successful lawyer in New York City,” as the play indicates. The character who is a child of Jewish immigrants, by marrying into the upper-class WASP establishment, feels he has succeeded socially as well as professionally (though the truth is that he is never truly accepted). A complex personality, he is given to generous gestures while yet pursuing sleazy cases and backdoor dealings. As the story unfolds, George Simon has his downfall in one respect, his salvation in another respect.
And now “Counsellor-at-Law” is enjoying a very successful revival off-Broadway, playing this month at the Theatre at St. Clement’s and presented by the Peccadillo Theater Company. It is amazing that the drama is not moth-eaten, that its views on the human condition continue to be so pertinent. Though costumes and hairdos are of the 30s, as is the slangy language, the characters’ dilemmas could well apply to today’s world. And though the current production at St. Clement’s runs almost 3 ½ hours, this piece is absorbing from beginning to end.
What accounts for its success, in the past as well as now? First, Rice writes in a style that is vigorous, simple and to the point. There’s never a wasted word as this hard-hitting, fast-moving tale unfolds. Characters tend to be stereotyped, but by the same token they are easily identifiable. And finally, director Dan Wackerman handles the material with aplomb. His opening scene, for example, where each person appears through the door as the day’s work begins, is a choreographic gem. It all takes place in the law offices of Simon and Tedesco, where staff members and clients come and go, and where Rice skillfully weaves together their various tales.
Wackerman has managed to assemble and coordinate a cast of 20, eliciting fine, sharp-edged performances from most of the players. In the title role, John Rubinstein whips up a storm, creating a fascinating persona in the process. Though Rubinstein tends toward a one-note shouting performance, never modifying his delivery, it is not inappropriate for his character. He is backed by this solid cast, with delightful performances too numerous to mention.
In all, an admirable revival of a ‘30s play that may be well on its way to becoming a classic.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 20, 2005