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Theatre in Review: A Class Act (New World Stages)

Matthew DeCapua, Jenny Strassburg. Photo: Carol Rosegg

"You really think we can get a giant like General Chemical to settle?" That's the big question at the heart of A Class Act. Norman Shabel, a longtime trial and class action lawyer, has assembled a gallery of tough-talking shysters, opportunists, and corporate toadies to litigate a suit against a corporation that -- Erin Brockovich-style -- has been pouring toxins into the ground, causing cancer in a disproportionate number of people who live near its factories. The plaintiff's side includes a lawyer who has won a settlement with General Chemical in California, a decision the corporation's executives now regret. The stakes are bigger this time; the case involves a national class action, with an as-yet-undetermined number of victims. General Chemical's vice president fears a possible payout in the billions, which, he insists, could result in the company's bankruptcy. He has reason to be worried; the other side has dug up a number of long-suppressed in-house reports that indicate General Chemical has known for years that its practices kill.

It's certainly a juicy situation, one that a more experienced playwright could invest with plenty of crackle, but Shabel and his director, Christopher Scott, aren't, theatrically speaking, ready to graduate from moot court. The trouble arguably begins with the introduction of Dorothy Pilsner, General Chemical's corporate counsel; before her entrance, she is described as a man-devouring legal shark crossed with a stripper in a gentleman's club. "I saw her defending General in that burn case when their warehouse blew up in Brooklyn," says one of her opponents. "She had the worst defense you could ask for...undeniable negligence bordering on the criminal. There she was, tight black skirt and sexy high heel shoes. She packed the jury with young guys and had them eating out of her hand. She practically gave the foreman a lap dance. By the time she finished with the opening statement, they all wanted to fuck her."

A formidable introduction, no? Unfortunately, verisimilitude goes out the window when Jenny Strassburg, as Dorothy, makes her first entrance. This is nothing against Strassburg, a skilled actress whose work goes a long way toward making us half-accept the absurd plot contortions that inform the later scenes of A Class Act. She definitely has presence and is more than up to the task of delivering her hard-boiled lines. And yet, there's nothing overtly sexual about her: With her straight-arrow posture, permanently pursed lips, and tightly restrained hair -- to say nothing of her wardrobe -- she is as prim and proper as any Seven Sisters graduate. (Later, when, in an abortive attempt at seduction, she appears in the sort of outfit favored by the Real Housewives of New Jersey, she looks like she'd rather be anywhere else but New World Stages.)

Very early on, then, something in A Class Act is off; a claim has been made that is demonstrably false and suddenly it is very, very difficult to believe anything else that follows. In any case, the double-dealing and horse-trading is often surprisingly limp, lacking in the kind of lethality that we have every reason to expect from watching TV shows like The Good Wife. Most of A Class Act follows both sides in negotiations over an out-of-court settlement, looking for drama in each side's attempts at undermining the other. Dorothy is deployed in a pair of remarkably lame blackmail plots, threatening one married, closeted lawyer with exposure of his sexuality and another with the revelation of a youthful arrest for possession of cocaine. Neither attempt goes anywhere. When everyone sits down at the table to hash out the details, the action doesn't build; instead, it consists of a longish back-and-forth that is surprisingly lacking in excitement. Neither the writing nor the direction conveys a sense of the stakes involved -- the possible survival of a major corporation, as well as its alleged responsibility for destroying tens of thousands of lives.

In any case, Shabel has other matters on his mind. I can't say much more, except to note that one of the lawyers involved has a private agenda, and it is the kind of preposterous twist that makes one retroactively reject everything that has come before. Even this doesn't provide a suitable climax. It is discussed at length, and is followed by another scene in which the details are hashed out once again.

A Class Act has a fairly minimal design, the better to accommodate its run of a few performances a week. The cast is variable, although it is always good to see Lou Liberatore, here cast as a lawyer with plenty to hide in his personal life and Matthew DeCapua is pretty solid as one of Dorothy's opponents, who is also a possible love interest for her. Otherwise, the play is pretty much like its characters: It comes on strong and tough, but, in the clutch, proves to be surprisingly weak and disorganized. I rule we remand this one back to a lower court. -- David Barbour


(26 July 2016)

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