It’s the Great Depression. Ruined businessmen are jumping from the upper stories of Manhattan skyscrapers, and at the law offices of Simon & Tedesco, the whole joint is jumping, though it’s only ethics, courtesies, and marriages that occasionally go out the window. Elmer Rice wrote Counsellor-at-Law, a juicy casserole of Manhattan legal life in 1931, when actors were cheaper and ethnic barriers higher; the former condition explains why his taut, shrewdly observant, sardonically funny work is so rarely revived: Just seeing 21 actors’ names listed in the program for the Peccadillo Theater Company’s production starts your heart racing.
Rice’s crisis parade keeps it pounding all evening. His hero, super-lawyer George Simon (John Rubinstein), is a self-made tenement kid, married to a Park Avenue socialite, who alternates headline-grabbing spouse murders with charity cases. While Simon strives to give the underclass a break, the WASP establishment is preparing to break him. Simon’s marriage, his position, and a host of cases he’s juggling all reach breaking point on the same exhausting day. Can he make it through with few allies beyond his sagacious mother (Mary Carver) and his infinitely loyal secretary (Lanie MacEwan)? That only hints at the countless plot motifs Rice stirs into his pot, salted with topics, still spicy today, from abortion to insider trading.
Dan Wackerman’s production, newly transferred Off-Broadway, has retained its zest and speed, though occasionally Wackerman opts for style ahead of substance. There’s no lack of substance, though, in Rubinstein’s Cagney-channeling bulldog performance. MacEwan, Carver, and half a dozen others score strongly behind him, while Amy Bradshaw’s costumes and Tyler Micoleau’s lights work period-evoking miracles on a skimpy budget. Compared to the lean cuisine of today’s theater, Rice is a feast.