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Counsellor-at-Law

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Never let it be said that there are no second chances. That it's still possible to redeem yourself for past errors in judgment is doubly the message of Counsellor-at-Law: In addition to being one of many vital nuggets of wisdom Elmer Rice packed into his terrific 1931 play, it's also a reminder that you now have another opportunity to visit the Peccadillo Theater Company's glowing production of it, now at the Theatre at St. Clement's.

For this truly is a gleaming treasure of a production, the type of which you're seldom likely to find at all and even less likely to unearth more than once. If you couldn't attend the original engagement that opened Off-Broadway last May, you now have little excuse for missing it this time around. The play runs a solid three hours, but the time you spend is an energizing investment: This is why most of us go to the theatre.

It's difficult to imagine a more sharply honed mounting of Rice's often didactic melodrama than the one director Dan Wackerman has provided here. It's not just the sumptuous physical presentation - though Chris Jones's chiseled and elegant law office set, Tyler Micoleau's brazenly subtle lights, and Amy Bradshaw's creamy period costumes are all first-rate - but the elaborate details: the way that scenes flow seamlessly into each other, the surges in emotion from elation to despondency that percolate through practically every exchange of words or looks, the almost Dionysian celebration of understatement and subtext that even the show's two child actors (Corinne Fitamant and Justin Riordan) have down to an exact science.

The result is that even though the main focus is the title character, successful New York lawyer George Simon (John Rubinstein), and his position within several battles in a silently raging class war, everyone seems of paramount importance. Foremost are George's longing secretary Regina (Lanie MacEwan), his partner in the law firm (Sal Mistretta), and his haughty society wife Cora (Beth Glover), who all orbit around him in first-tier support of the play's examination of anti-Semitism and ideals gone astray.

The specific plot, about attempts to discredit and disbar George based upon a particularly poor decision he made in his youth, often seems almost an afterthought; it's thoroughly and intelligently plotted and executed, but not the kind of thing you're likely to care much about until its nail-biting conclusion makes it inevitable. Far more interesting and significant to the experience of the production are the ways the characters interact, and how the actors playing them bring out every minute nuance of those interactions.

Rubinstein wonderfully delineates the differences in how George deals with his various clients, his emasculating wife, his coworkers, and his enemies, and occasionally brings an impish vivacity to his role that anchors the play simultaneously in 1931 and 2005. And MacEwan is excellent as Regina, saying less with her lines than with her furtive glances toward Rubinstein, her nearly imperceptible shifts in vocal tone when talking to Cora, or her shuffling evasiveness when turning down romantic advancements from a coworker. The final scene between George and Regina is alternately harrowing and heartwarming, a master class in developing unspoken feelings into legitimately captivating theatre.

But even in the tiniest roles are exquisite portraits painted: Tara Sands is remarkable as the firm's ailing receptionist, Brian N. Taylor is endearingly arrogant as an amorous law clerk, and Ashley West and Nell Gwynn fully embody two of George's clients with scarcely a full scene's worth of dialogue between them. Mary Carver is lovingly doting as Simon's mother, Ginger Rich is heartbreaking as a mother depending on George to save her revolutionary son, a role David Lavine imbues with surprising violence and power.

Everyone, though, is great, and sees to it that not a moment in Counsellor-at-Law isn't richly vibrant and exciting, a celebration of the unexpected and undervalued. If there's a problem with this production - at that's a big "if" - it's perhaps that it too unfairly raises expectations: Most Broadway plays - and, unfortunately, some musicals - don't dare or can't dare to have a cast as large as the one here (21 actors). Off-Broadway, it's an even rarer occurrence.

That's all the more reason to embrace the second chance Wackerman, his extraordinary cast and crew, and the Peccadillo Theater Company have given us, with what might well be the definitive modern interpretation of Counsellor-at-Law. It's the kind of play - and the kind of production - that you long to see on Broadway, but seldom witness there, Off-Broadway, or just about anywhere else.

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Peccadillo Theater Company
Counsellor-at-Law
Through March 6
Running Time: 3 hours with one 10-minute intermission
Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444