As a practicing trial and class-action lawyer for 46 years, playwright Norman Shabel has seen the American legal system from the inside, and it isn’t pretty. He draws on that first-hand experience for his latest behind-the-scenes drama A Class Act, now in production Off-Broadway for a limited run at New World Stages, following its spring debut at the Playroom Theater.
Focused on a life-and-death issue ripped from today’s headlines, the play considers the strategic no-holds-barred wheeling and dealing that goes on with seven high-powered attorneys on both sides of the case, when a national class-action lawsuit is brought against a major chemical company for pouring carcinogenic waste into the public water supply. Filled with legalese, the script raises familiar questions about unethical lawyers, unscrupulous industries, and a judicial system that is blind to all of it, while the little guy suffers.
The characters are of an ilk that gives lawyers a bad name, seemingly motivated by the greed inherent in a capitalist system, the lust for power and position in a class-conscious society, and the sexism that is rampant in an old-boys network. There are twists and turns in the plot—some believable, others not (most notably the hidden background of the key figure at play’s end, which was not fully investigated by the law firm)–that incorporates everything from blackmail and sexual politics to whistle-blowing and selling out for the big payoff. Though the plot points are nothing new, they remain relevant, and raise significant questions about human motivations and corporate corruption that should not be excused or forgotten.
Director Christopher Scott holds our attention by keeping the actors moving around the stationary set and growing the tension between them, giving emphasis to their increasingly volatile confrontations. David Marantz turns in the most powerful of the ensemble’s unequal performances as Edward Duchamp, the explosive counsel for General Chemical, who justifies the company’s actions in a blind rage, equating them with the public’s unwillingness to give up such manufactured luxuries as the cars, digital devices, and air conditioning, which also do harm to us and our environment.
Also on the team for the defense are Nick Plakias (John Dubliner) and Jenny Strassburg (Dorothy Pilsner), both willing to stop at nothing to win, and Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte as Ignatio Perez, who, despite his modicum of principles and the sound advice he gives to his colleagues, remains where he thinks the money is.
Representing the class-action plaintiffs are Stephen Bradbury as Phil Alessi, a coarse-talking thrice-divorced old-school misogynist; Matthew DeCapua as his ambitious young partner Frank Warsaw, who aspires to be like him; and Lou Liberatore as Ben Donaldson, a co-counsel from another law firm with a potentially damaging secret (the actor was suffering from hoarseness during the performance I attended and was often inaudible; Jared Sclar’s sound design failed to compensate for the problem).
Professional attire by Costume Designer Dustin Cross and a sleek high-end set by Josh Iacovelli, with a projection screen backdrop that identifies the time and locales of the changing scenes, are effective in evoking the lifestyle of the moneyed professionals in the conference room, board room, and upscale restaurants. But all told, it’s difficult to empathize with the sleazy characters Shabel portrays, to have much confidence in a system that rewards the most cut-throat and duplicitous of the lot–whether or not they win their case–or to find the titular “class act” among them.
Running Time: Approximately 0ne hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.