Despite what theatrical courtroom dramas would have you think, big-money lawsuits in the real world tend to play out between attorneys in
uninspiring conference rooms. Lawyer-turned-playwright Norman Shabel sets his new play, A Class Act, in one of those backrooms, detailing the negotiations and machinations of a class-action settlement for victims of contaminated groundwater.
A trio of lawyers (Stephen Bradbury, Matthew DeCapua, Lou Liberatore)
accuse General Chemical Co. of polluting water across the country through cancer-causing factory runoff. These attorneys are hoping for a big payoff from the deep pockets of the corporation, while the “suits” at the latter (David Marantz, Nick Plakias) plan to use blackmail as leverage to pay as little as possible. They’ve got pit-bull in-house counsel Dorothy Pilsner (Jenny Strassburg) to deliver their threats; she uses her sexual allure to win over juries and opponents alike, crossing into unethical and downright criminal behavior if she has to. Her openly sexist bosses demand that (and much more) of her.
Unlike A Civil Action or Erin Brockovich, Shabel’s work chooses not to concentrate on the victims of environmental malfeasance or an investigation of wrongdoing. The play starts from the premise that General Chemical has known all along about its toxic dumping, so the primary focus is on the terms of settlement.
For all the bombast, though, we rarely hear what anyone feels. Lawyers jockey
for position, but the dialogue isn’t clever enough to make these verbal conflicts sizzle. Legal jargon drags; ethical quandaries get glossed over. The real issues, of environmental destruction and corporate profit at the expense of human beings, only crop up at the end of the story — way too late.
A Class Act
Directed by Christopher Scott
New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street
Through September 4