“A Class Act” Is A High Stakes Ride Through The American Justice System

More than one meaning of the phrase A Class Act is alluded to in the play of the same name by Norman Shabel, which opened last weekend at Miami’s Sandrell Rivers Theatre. Though it is an informal term that can be used to describe “a person or thing displaying impressive and stylish excellence,” it can also be used to describe an action taken by a class of people, as in the class action lawsuit that the play’s plot centers on. 

In this case, the party being sued is a corporate giant known as General Chemical—and it’s also pretty clear from the outset that the corrupt organization is indeed guilty of their alleged wrongdoing, the crime in question being that they knowingly allowed cancer-causing chemicals to be released into the surrounding water supply. While it is thus relatively easy to indict the company from a moral standpoint, proving anything in a court of law will still be no easy feat, especially when GC will stop at nothing to cover the tracks of their shady dealings. 

Being a former lawyer himself, Shabel is ideally placed to investigate the workings of the American legal system. But, as opposed to taking us to the courtroom itself, he instead takes us behind the scenes, into the fraught and often ugly negotiations that take place between attorneys long before a case is tried. 

Though this approach has its perks, it also has its pitfalls, including the fact that much of the show’s running time is sacrificed to various strategizing sessions as opposed to anything that might create more narrative momentum. The smarmy confidence and skeletons in the closet of even the story’s “good” characters also made them somewhat hard to care about, at least initially. 

However, some humor and backstory injected into the proceedings keep these debates from getting unbearably tedious, and some early dialogue about the toxic water’s effects on animals at least hints at the story’s stakes. Still, I didn’t find myself actually getting invested until the play’s second act, which is when things finally start coming to a head. 

Then, just as resolution seems close at hand, Shabel turns the play’s tables entirely, revealing a new aspect to a character’s motivation that completely changes the audience’s interpretation of everything that has come before. Though what ensues from there could probably be described as somewhat melodramatic, it also happens to be tremendously satisfying in allowing one character a badass moment of redemption and others to get their just comeuppance. 

So, while the twist may stretch believability, the ways in which it does are powerfully evocative of the ways in which our justice system should work and the ways in which it so often does not, as are the substantial personal sacrifices and moral compromise that were required to bring the play’s ending about. A revelation that finally puts a human face on the massive suffering that General Chemical has caused is also a powerful indictment of the corporate powers that be and, consequently, a powerful argument for A Class Act’s relevance. 

Director Seth Trucks does a respectable job of enlivening the more static scenes with shifts in energy and blocking, and the show’s ensemble cast also does much to animate them. Two of the particularly excellent players included Adam Crain as young hotshot lawyer Warsaw and Carey Brianna Hart as Dorothy Pilsner, the sole female lawyer of the crew. Consequently, an Act 2 scene that finds the two characters in a bar blurring the lines between legal chess match and interpersonal seduction was definitely one of the play’s highlights. Christopher Dreeson also excels at creating an aura of authority as corrupt executive Edward Duchamp, as well as in becoming a frighteningly uninhibited version of the character during a whiskey-fueled confrontation that comes near the play’s conclusion. 

In the end, despite A Class Act’s structural flaws, it remains a story worth telling if it has any chance of inspiring action on the part of the audience when it comes to General Chemical’s many real-life analogues, which is what its closing dialogue clearly seems to be calling for. So, if you’re up for an earnest attempt to theatrically celebrate the importance of fighting for what’s right with some amusing banter between lawyers thrown in, feel free to make your way to A Class Act before it closes up on this November 20th!

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