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Within the Law

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

David Logan Rankin and Elisabeth Preston.
Photo by Debbie Goldman.
With messages about corporate greed, the plight of the working poor, the unequal treatment of women in the workplace, and the often mutually exclusive concepts of "the law" and "justice," it should come as no surprise that the Metropolitan Playhouse's revival of Bayard Veiller's Within the Law retains its ability to grip theatergoers—even though the play first saw the light of day in 1912.

While it certainly is true that Within the Law is a melodrama, the writing is sharp and often very clever, and the cast, under Michael Hardart's steady direction, stays focused on the play's prevailing theme while assiduously steering clear of the kinds of emotional excess associated with the genre.

The central character is Mary Turner (an excellent Elisabeth Preston), a smart and confident young woman who is working as a sales person at The Emporium, owned and operated by Edward Gilder (John D. McNally). Despite a stellar reputation and a spotless record, Mary has been accused of theft from the store, and has been summarily tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence, abetted by Mr. Gilder's insistence that she be made an example of, and, as she says, the fact that her court-appointed counsel was a "boy trying his first case."

When Mary emerges from prison after serving three years, she has learned a lot about how men like Mr. Gilder manage to stay at the top of the heap by hiring cadres of corporate lawyers who know how to operate just within the law. As Gilder himself puts it: "I'm not a swindler; I'm a financier." It isn't long before Mary has set herself up in business with a group of grifters, whom she trains to find legal avenues for their con artist schemes.

Although she has been managing quite well, Mary sets her sights on avenging herself against her former employer. Will she succeed, or will she overstep her bounds? And what will happen when Police Inspector Burke (David Logan Rankin) makes it his life's work to pull the plug on her little enterprise and bounce her back to prison? (I did tell you this was a melodrama.)

For much of the rest of the play, the audience is treated to a tennis match between two pros, as the ball volleys back and forth between Mary and Inspector Burke. There is only one unexpected (to Mary) complication, and that comes in the form of Mr. Gilder's son Dick (Ryan Reilly), who, for better or worse, has fallen in love with her.

In the end, both justice and the law are served, if not the broader issues of equity that the play addresses. Throughout, the four leads do splendidly inhabiting their roles and bringing their somewhat stereotypic characters to life. They are well supported by the 10 other cast members, who double as scenery movers over the course of the play's four acts (running time, two-and-a-half hours with one intermission).

Within the Law
Through June 29
Metropolitan Playhouse, in the Cornelia Connelly Center at 220 East Fourth Street (easternmost door) between Avenues A & B in the East Village
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