What is the most famous play currently running in New York that you have probably never heard of before? Bayard Veiller’s Within the Law, Metropolitan Playhouse’s final entry in its “Justice” season, has been filmed six times since its Broadway debut in 1912, most famously as Paid with Joan Crawford, revived once on the main stem, and still packs quite a punch. (Veiller’s courtroom drama, The Trial of Mary Dugan, has been filmed 13 times so far – but that has not had a major New York production since 1927. His mystery play, The Thirteenth Chair, has been filmed six times, and will be shown on Turner Classic Movies on the morning of June 19.)
What is it about the plays of Bayard Veiller? Well, first of all they are crackerjack melodramas each inventing a new twist not seen on stage before. In Mary Dugan, he invented the trial play putting a courtroom on stage for the first time. In Within the Law, Veiller proved that crime does pay and the criminals end up rewarded by the final curtain while the authorities are shamed for the morally corrupt entities that they often are. And the lower class protagonist becomes a heroine from the very first scene. A pro-labor, anti-capitalist play, Within the Law was the smash hit of its original season with patrons who would have been mainly from the very class that the play condemned.
Although the stage mechanics of Within the Law has become somewhat old-fashioned in the 100 years since its premiere, its themes could be right out of today’s headlines, proving that little has changed: a living wage for the working class, unequal justice for rich and poor, the wide gap in income inequality between the classes in America, and corporate greed which is entirely legal. Michael Hardart, who has directed excellent revivals of the American classics, A Man’s World, The Great Divide, and Under the Gaslight, at Metropolitan Playhouse, continues his winning streak with a polished and assured production of Within the Law which is always entertaining. He manages to hide some of the melodramatic devices with the excellence of the acting particularly by Elisabeth Preston in the leading role of Mary Turner.
The opening scene is a kind of prologue to the actual action: Mary Turner, a shop girl at The Emporium, a department store owned by millionaire Edward Gilder, has been convicted of shoplifting on circumstantial evidence and given a three-year prison sentence. Loudly proclaiming her innocence, Mary is not believed because she is from the lowly working class and not to be trusted, her five years of good service notwithstanding. When asked to speak to the judge on her behalf, her boss has told him that she should be made an example for the other shop girls who might have similar thoughts. Given the chance to confront her boss and tell him how to stop his employees from stealing, she tells him to pay the girls a living wage: “… an honest girl can’t live decently on six dollars a week — and buy food and clothes and pay room-rent and car-fare.” The flabbergasted Gilder’s defense is that he pays the same as other stores. Mary’s parting words are “You’re going to pay me for the five years I’ve starved making money for you – you’re going to pay me for everything I’m losing today!”
Four years later, Mary is out of prison and has learned the way of the world: blackmail isn’t illegal if done with a lawyer. The rehabilitated Miss Turner now runs a gang of discreet blackmailers who work within the law. And she is planning her revenge: she is out to marry Gilder’s spendthrift, playboy son Dick. However, the New York police are watching her every step and Police Inspector Burke is not above framing her with the use of a stool pigeon to get her back in prison. Will he be able to entrap the wily Mary who is not above marrying without love in order to get back her own?
Preston gives a marvelous performance as the self-possessed modern young woman who understands the workings of both economics and the law. Always articulate, she makes her character sympathetic from the first time we meet her staunchly proclaiming her innocence even to her second life in crime that is “within the law.” So different does she look from the shop girl of the first act to when we see her again as a shady lady who travels with the well-heeled denizens of high society, that she is at first unrecognizable. Elegantly dressed by costume designer Sidney Fortner, she has become the “Lady” that she swore to Gilder she would become. Her effortless and silver-tongued delivery makes her center stage whenever she deigns to speak. Preston’s Mary Turner is a true feminist in American drama, long before our major playwrights had learned the lessons of Shaw and Ibsen.
The rest of the characters are basically stock types but as underplayed by the majority of the cast, they keep the melodramatic twists and turns surprising and diverting rather than far-fetched and improbable. John D. McNally makes financier Edward Gilder a very righteous do-gooder by his own lights. As his son Dick, Ryan Reilly emphasizes the innocence and gullibility of this spoiled and pampered young man. Olivia Killingsworth is very amusing as Agnes Lynch, a confidence woman taking lessons on how to act “society” from Mary and learning as fast as she is taught. Christian Rozakis is a dark brooding presence as a pugnacious and belligerent member of Mary’s gang. Robert K. Benson is quite spiffy as “English” Eddie Griggs, a crook who can ape his betters. As Gilder’s lawyer, Kelly Dean Cooper is suave and shrewd. Only David Logan Rankin as Police Inspector Burke sworn to bring Mary down puts you in mind of the melodrama villain who twirls his long mustaches. However, he is having so much fun in this juicy role that he becomes a crafty adversary for our heroine while seeming to be from a different century.
Even at two hours and 30 minutes, the play does not seem a minute too long as Hardart’s direction keeps the pace expeditiously moving. Alex Roe’s four sets (changed before the audience) cleverly reuse furniture and props so that they take the minimum of time to transform from one to the other. Fortner’s many attractive costumes for the 20 characters populate the stage with the authentic look of the late Edwardian era just on the eve of World War I. Christopher Weston is responsible for the unobtrusive lighting design.
Bayard Veiller’s Within the Law is an engaging melodrama on themes that still concern us, and Michael Hardart’s production for Metropolitan Playhouse makes use of all its twists and turns to keep you guessing. This is old-fashioned theater at its best, provocative, absorbing and unpredictable. Within
the Law proves to be a lost classic from an earlier era of theater that deserves a hearing both because it is fun and also because its themes are still shockingly timely.
Within the Law (through June 29, 2014)
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or http://www.metropolitanplayhouse.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission