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A Lowly Scorned Shopgirl Takes On the Upper Crust

‘Within the Law’ Is a Revival Focusing on Social Justice

Within the Law Olivia Killingsworth, left, Elisabeth Preston and Christian Rozakis in this revival at the Metropolitan Playhouse. Credit Debbie Goldman

However current the issues of income inequality, a living wage and an arbitrary criminal justice system may be, “Within the Law” reminds us that they have long been fodder for popular entertainment.

A Broadway hit in 1912, and adapted several times for the movies, this play by Bayard Veiller and revived by the Metropolitan Playhouse aspires to a Dickensian blend of melodrama and social justice. As it opens, its heroine, Mary Turner (Elisabeth Preston), an honest shop clerk, has been sentenced to three years in prison for stealing from the New York department store where she works.

Before she is sent upstate, Edward Gilder (John D. McNally), the store’s owner, agrees to meet with her. After protesting her innocence, Mary adds that if he wants to cut down theft at his company, he should raise wages: “An honest girl can’t live on $6 a week.” Gilder responds that the salaries are in line with other stores, and that he will not seek leniency on her behalf. Very well, Mary vows: “You are going to pay.”

Four years later, Mary, out of jail and now schooled in the ways of con artistry, is back in town, befriending reformed criminals and teaching them how to turn shakedown marks, but “within the law.” For example, a young woman’s threat to release letters from an older married man in high society might be blackmail; get lawyers involved, though, and it becomes just a business contract.

The biggest scam, though, is Mary’s sparkling new marriage to Edward Gilder’s son, Dick (Ryan Reilly), whom she weds to humiliate his father. Meanwhile, a plan by the police to trap Mary’s gang in a robbery leaves Mary and Dick as murder suspects.

Thanks to Michael Hardart’s direction, this four-act tale doesn’t lag. And the cast members, notably Ms. Preston and Mr. McNally, try hard to invest their characters with emotional weight. But as intriguing as some elements are, “Within the Law” is less a revenge thriller than a creaking melodrama. Much of the main action is offstage, and many of the roles are cardboard cutouts. The shock of realizing how little has changed over the decades is the main reason to revisit this potboiler.

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