Review by Tulis McCall
28 July 2016
You have to hand it to Norman Shabel, the author of A Class Act, now at New World Stages. He is a lawyer turned whistle blower with all the good intentions that the position holds. Shabel is on a mission to show us the underbelly of the Beast known as Justice. He wants to show us, even if we don’t want to see it, how the sausage is made. And it is a messy, discouraging spectacle.
General Chemical (read Dupont or its spinoff Chemours, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, General Electric, etc., etc., etc…) is facing a class action suit for – horrors – dumping chemicals into the water system. For the prosecution we have Alessi & Warsaw: Phil Alessi (Stephen Bradbury) and Frank Warsaw (Matthew DeCapua) and a senior counsel from a different firm Ben Donaldson (Lou Liberatore).
The defense team is Ignatio Perez (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte), John Dubliner (Nick Plakias), Edward Duchamp (David Marantz) and Dorothy Pilsner (Jenny Strassburg).
The first few minutes of the play are spent in the obligatory “Here is the situation,” section of the play, as if we were lawyers ourselves about to join the team. A great deal of the conversation is spent describing Dorothy Pilsner who, from all accounts, is a VERY sexy black-widow kind of lawyer. Or is it praying mantis? The upshot is that if she smiles at you, duck and cover. She will slither all over you until she gets what she wants and then dump you like a banana peel. This is a heady teaser to live up to.
Ms. Strassburg, sad to say, does not. Which is not her fault one little bit. This is a smart actor who plays the hand she is dealt, but there is no overcoming the fact that she is not the least bit threatening. If anything she is a cheerleader who can do all the moves – back flips, jumps, splits – and make it look easy. Therefore a critical element in the plot is weakened substantially. And this is way before the negotiations begin.
We spend the next chunk of time watching these people go back and forth with threats and plans. Alessi and team have confidential information that will sink General Chemical. General Chemical lost a case handled by Donaldson in California and does not want this to happen again. They are willing to place their opposing team’s private live’s on the table, and Pilsner is sent as the messenger. When these plots fail, the costs, fees and settlement numbers are batted around like so many ping pong balls. 500 million is considered taxi fare. Fifteen billion is considered extortion. The head count on plaintiffs willing to sign on has not been capped, so who knows what the ultimate number will be for Chemical. And of course these poor lawyers have to eat, for crying out loud.
Everyone ends up showing their price tag. Even the ones who seem like they have a moral streak. In an oddly placed rant by Duchamp, even we are implicated in this matter. Who wants to give up their air conditioning, their plastic EVERYTHING, their computers and smart phones? Hmmmmm??? WHO? Not me and not you. So how can we, in good conscience, implicate the people who provide us with all of the above and more? Think about it, folks.
In the end, however, in spite of Shabel’s sincere attempt, we care little about this story. It has been told before. The performances on the night I saw this show were uneven, and the characters themselves are more iconic than specific. Rule #1: The devil is always in the details.
There are no real surprises as everything plays out, except for the finale which, once it begins, can be heard coming a mile away. It is Shabel’s way of letting us know that there are principled lawyers out there. The connections leading up to the conclusion, however, are never clearly established and the landing is bumpy in the extreme.
Like I said – this is a noble attempt to tell a smarmy tale. Shabel has the guts, and now he needs a dramaturge’s guidance to help him dig for the gold that is surely there.