From My Seat in the House – Mari Lyn Henry
A societal clash between the wealthy CEO of a department store and the poor shop girl who slaves for him working nine hour days, earning a paltry six dollars a week, faced with starvation and cramped living quarters; the weak judicial system and inept legal profession enhanced by the strong- armed tactics of the NY Police Department, and evils of the state prison, are the relevant themes in Bayard Veiller’s Within the Law, a stirring drama about injustice, vengeance and exoneration.
Written in 1912, the plot concerns Mary Turner, convicted for stealing $400 from Edward Gilder’s Emporium, where she has worked for five years, and who is sentenced to a three year prison term in spite of her declarations of innocence. Gilder uses her incarceration as a warning to his employees. The action begins when Mary, handcuffed to Detective Cassidy, confronts Gilder in his office but her protestations fall on deaf ears. As she exits, she vows revenge. The second act occurs four years later. Mary is now living in Gramercy Square in a well-furnished room and is financially secure, operating a clever blackmailing gang that is always within the law. She tells Agnes Lynch, roomie and cohort, “the richest men in this country made their fortunes not because of the law, but in spite of it. ..anyone with brains can get rich in this country if he’ll engage the right lawyer. I have the brains and my attorney …is showing me the law… ”
Joe Garson, a career criminal, with a quick temper and trigger finger, has a soft spot for Mary and is jealous of her romantic entanglement with Dick Gilder, son of the man responsible for her time in jail. Police Inspector Burke is determined to convict Mary and her gang; he hires English Eddie as a stool pigeon to implicate them in a heist of smuggled tapestries at Gilder’s mansion. He also expects Mary to leave town and not return but finds out that she has married Dick Gilder, not for love but to get even. In spite of the father’s attempts to bribe her, she is triumphant as she declares “Four years ago you took away my name and gave me a number. Now I’ve given up that number and I’ve got your name!”
The third act concerns police patrolling the mansion, a foiled robbery attempt when Joe discovers the tapestries are worthless and takes out his Maxim’s revolver (with the silencer) to kill Griggs. The blame game ensues in Act 4 with all the characters involved claiming innocence or guilt and finally when Mary is accused, Joe confesses he did it. Mary’s innocence is restored when a letter is delivered to her home and brought to Police Inspector Burke who reads Helen Morris’ confession about the theft. Dick and Mary have the freedom to express their shared love.
Elisabeth Preston, as Mary Turner, is a gifted actress who has found all of the nuance and emotional arcs. Her role is the centerpiece of the plot and she is ably supported by Olivia Killingsworth as the feisty con artist Agnes Lynch; Christian Rozakis as the Bogie-like felon Joe Garson, John D. McNally as the wealthy scoundrel Edward Gilder, Ryan Reilly as the smitten Dick Gilder, David Logan Rankin as the Javert-like Inspector Burke and an emotional turn from Meredith M. Sweeney as Helen Morris. Smaller roles are effectively played by Robert K. Benson as English Eddie, Kelly Dean Cooper as George Demarest, David O’Hara as Cassidy, Andrew Spieker and Deb Radloff. Michael Hardart directs the cast with great understanding of the text, the period, and keeps it moving.
Alex Roe has designed four different sets with illusory pieces of furniture, backdrops and props to suggest an office, an opulent apartment, an elegant mansion and a detective’s office. Costumes are first rate by Sidney Fortner.
Metropolitan Playhouse, 220A E. 4th St., NYC (bet. Ave. A & B) until June 29th Tickets:212-995-5302
*Photos: Debbie Goldman