Attorney-authored, ‘A Class Act,’ offers edgy take on lawyers battling to settle deadly ecological lawsuit

A captivating play written by a lawyer with 50-plus years of experience – a drama encapsulating the essentials of a deadly environmental lawsuit — recently concluded a brief series of tautly-told productions at the Mizner Park Cultural Center in Boca Raton.

A Class Act, in the words of its playwright, Norman Shabel, “depicts the war-like negotiations between [the attorneys] for corporate non-caring perpetrators and the lawyers who represent the dying public.” 

David Simson, who directed the performance that enthralled full-house audiences March 25 through March 27, commented that “the play is intriguing, timely and urgent in its deep exploration of the law and moral relativity and responsibility. It deals with issues and questions that touch the hearts, the souls and the minds of the 21st century.”

An exceptional ensemble of seven able actors handles the complicated case that not only deals with the legal aspects of the matter in question, but also puts the faults and foibles of the attorneys involved squarely in the crosshairs.  This element of the play makes it clear that any glitch, personal or professional, is fair game for a courtroom showdown. 

The crux of the case is fairly simple.  A major chemical company has been pouring cancer-causing waste into the water supply serving communities in several states. A high-powered law firm brings a class action lawsuit on behalf of the thousands of “little people” who might die from drinking the tainted waters. 

The firm’s staff must battle tooth and nail with the opposing barristers who’ve apparently decided not to fight the accusations, but rather are struggling to keep the chemical company’s liability low and limit the number of people who can participate in the class action litigation.

As the lawyers spend hours meeting among themselves and with each other in their offices, wheeling, dealing, and trying to decide whether to take a settlement or go to trial, it becomes increasingly unclear who is really winning. Who will make the millions, whether their litigants win or lose? Which lawyers concoct the best fights… or the worst? Who gets justice in the end, and who is denied the legitimacy that America guarantees? 

A Class Act has been described as “engrossing and gripping,” and the Boca Raton version certainly reaches those parameters. The cast easily handles a script that includes a large serving of legalese. While some words and phrases may jar the audience’s ability to understand, the overall picture is pretty clear. Needless to say, with millions – or even billions – of dollars at stake, tempers flare, vulgarities fly, and some inappropriate comments go unanswered.

Overall, the folks in the audience get a full-blown inside look at a world in which greed pervades, the loyal suffer and morality can easily be trumped by immorality.

Working for the prosecution is the firm of Alessi & Warsaw: Phil Alessi (Bob Sharkey), the elder partner, and Frank Warsaw (Tom Copeland), a fiery-tempered, quick-witted attorney who’s heavy on testosterone. Joining them is a senior counsel from another firm, Ben Donaldson (Brewer Daniels).

The defense team includes Ignatio Perez (Adam Carter), John Dubliner (Tom Turner), Edward Duchamp (Ken Vianale) and Dorothy Pilsner (Leslie Kandel).

Vianale adds a true smack of reality since he actually served as a class action lawyer in New York and Florida from 1995 to 2021.

Each team plots their strategies in their own offices, then joins forces to hash out a settlement – if one can be decided. For much of the play, an accord seems far, far away and virtual unachievable. That’s when the attorneys begin searching out unorthodox means.

The defense seems to have a secret weapon in Ms. Pilsner, an attractive woman with obvious attributes and an apparently effective record of sexual conquest. She tries to trip up a couple of opponents through sexual subterfuge. She takes on Donaldson, who once had an affair with an underage boy, and also works on the revved-up Warsaw, who makes no bones about his below-the-belt prowess.

Both efforts come up short.

In his script, Shabel makes a bold move by attributing such inappropriate behavior to the whims of the lady lawyer – though she is quite vocal that she’s stepping over the line at the behest of her fellow attorneys.

Both Act I and Act II are heavy with bitter arguments, though some comic relief can be heard now and then.

The finale is unquestionably the production’s coup. Some may like the conclusion; others may not. It is certainly unexpected and brings down the final curtain with shock and awe.

While A Class Act covers material dramatized elsewhere, Norman Shabel’s play is definitely absorbing and unpredictable. The cast—many with ties to such local showplaces as Lake Worth Playhouse, Delray Beach Playhouse and West Boca Theatre Company — is totally successful in bringing life and light to the legal trade. 

This is a tense and enlightening period at the theater that demonstrates the startling inner workings of the legal system, even when the subject of the litigation seems like an open and shut case.

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