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Timely Period Piece : Co-director John Rubinstein appears with his wife, Jane Lanier, in 'Counsellor-at-Law,' a decades-old play that he says still applies today.

November 11, 1994|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes frequently about theater for The Times

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — Can a 63-year-old play be new again? John Rubinstein thinks so.

"It's very similar to L. A. today," says the actor, who's starring in a revival of Elmer Rice's 25-character drama "Counsellor-at-Law" at Interact Theatre. "There's the same mixing together of ethnic groups, depending on each other and yet competing for business, turf and opportunity. There's also very much a class war going on now--and the play is about that: people who are downtrodden, fighting their way up from the streets. Although it's a period play, it's not predictable or nostalgic. It's tough-talking, blood-and-guts."

Rubinstein was originally offered the role he's now playing--hotshot divorce lawyer George Simon--at the Williamstown Festival in 1993, but turned it down to spend time with his oldest son, Michael, who was home from college on summer break. Instead, the actor mounted a reading of the play at Interact (where he and his actress-dancer wife, Jane Lanier, have been members since 1992), a staging that included Lanier, Rubinstein, his son Michael and Michael's girlfriend, Zoe Friedman.

"It was a real family production," says Rubinstein, who also has a 22-year-old daughter, Jessica, from his first marriage. Now that the play is receiving a full-scale staging, he and Lanier are reprising their roles--but Michael and Zoe are back in college. New on the sidelines, however, is Rubinstein and Lanier's 8 1/2-month-old son, Peter. "It's hard to concentrate when he's at rehearsal, and tough to learn my lines," admits Lanier, who met Rubinstein in 1989 when they were both appearing on Broadway--he in "M. Butterfly," she in her Tony-nominated role in "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."

"He saw me dance and wanted to meet me," says Indiana-born, ballet-trained Lanier.

"We had a lot of mutual friends, but no one wanted to help him meet me." Lanier, who quips that she went from "point shoes in 'The Nutcracker' to cruise ships in bikinis" before making it in New York (her Broadway credits include "Guys and Dolls," "Anything Goes," "Sweet Charity" and "On Your Toes"), notes that the couple's 1992 L.A. move was in part a chance for her to redefine herself professionally: "In New York I was only known as a dancer. So it's been like starting over."

In this play, Lanier plays Bessie, the law firm's switchboard operator. "She runs the outer office; everyone likes her," explains the actress. "It's not the biggest part, but John said, 'It's the most fun.' And she has some great personality quirks."

Rubinstein's character is a flashy publicity hound with 18 years in practice. "He came from the East Side, very poor," says the actor. "And he's married this aristocratic blueblood. So there's some tension there, feelings of inferiority of my class."

Class is one of the persistent elements in Rice's work, and Rubinstein stresses that he has not altered the script to fit 1990s sensibilities: "We've changed nothing to be PC (politically correct). We left in all the raw stuff--like calling people 'wops,' 'Jews,' 'coloreds.' We're keeping it in period and not apologizing for any of that."

Paul Muni originated the role on Broadway, John Barrymore later did the movie, and, says Rubinstein, "his Jewishness was one of the many themes of the work--that ethnic melting pot of 1930s Manhattan."

For Rubinstein, his current role follows closely on the heels of his last stage outing, playing a successful painter in Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen" at the Odyssey Theatre.

Born in Los Angeles, the son of pianist Arthur Rubinstein, he attended UCLA and has spent his career segueing from music (his writing credits include the theme for the TV series "Family," in which he also co-starred) to acting.

His stage roles include the Broadway productions of "Pippin" and "Children of a Lesser God." The latter originated at the Taper and earned him a Tony in 1980.

This time around, Rubinstein is wearing two hats: as performer and as co-director with Anita Khanzadian.

"I love the work, I love the business," he says. "I love to act; I always have. I love directing, and I feel I'm good at it. But without Anita, I wouldn't be able to put this on. It's an epic play, a big play--it needs and could use a Broadway house. I think it's going to blow people away."

Where and When

What: "Counsellor-at-Law."

Location: Interact Theatre, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. No performances Nov. 25-27. Ends Dec. 18.

Price: $15 general; senior, student and group rates are available.

Call: (213) 660-8587.

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