Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Off the Shelf: Law & Order, "American Dream" (1993)

Željko Ivanek (left) and Michael Moriarty in Law & Order, "American Dream"

The recent reboot of Law & Order is singularly dispiriting – the writing has as much life as unleavened dough and the acting of the jobbed-in actors rarely rises above the mediocre. The regulars (Camryn Manheim, Anthony Anderson and Jeffrey Donovan as “order” and Sam Waterston, Hugh Dancy and Odelya Halevi as “law”) are working very hard to pretend not to notice that no one has written characters for them to play. Only Waterston has evidently thrown in the towel: he gets more mummified with every episode. I doubt it’s his own fault:  he may be pushing eighty-two, but he just gave the performance of his career as George Shultz in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout.

To cheer myself up I took my box set of season four down and began reacquainting myself with some classic episodes I hadn’t glanced at in a few years. Season four (1993-94) was S. Epatha Merkerson’s first as Lt. Anita Van Buren and Michael Moriarty’s last as Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone; the homicide cops, Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe and Chris Noth’s Mike Logan, were holdovers, and the peerless Steven Hill was still delivering cynical witticisms as the permanently ulcerated D.A. Adam Schiff, but Stone’s new assistant was Jill Hennessy as novice Claire Kincaid. And as Stone’s favorite shrink on call, Elizabeth Olivet, Carolyn McCormick had earned a regular series credit. At the halfway point I’ve revisited a number of classic hours and some splendid performances, but the standout is "American Dream," the directorial debut of long-time series cinematographer Constantine Makris. The writer, Sibyl Gardner, has structured this entry as a sort of duel between Stone and a yuppie sociopath and architect of a Ponzi scheme named Phillip Swann (played by Željko Ivanek). Here’s the set-up. An unearthed corpse at a building site turns out to be Swann’s alleged stabbing victim, an older financier who’d trounced him at his own game and cheated him out of his own ill-gotten gains. Nine years ago Stone managed to put away the young Wall Street playboy without having to produce a body because of the testimony of Swann’s accomplice. But the accomplice’s story was that they buried the remains out in New Jersey; suddenly they pop up on Roosevelt Island, plus the cause of death turns out to be a gunshot to the head. Swann demands and receives a retrial, at which he acts – rather brilliantly, notwithstanding the lack of a law degree – as his own defense attorney.

Ivanek has appeared on so many television series over the last four decades that he’s easily recognizable, and New York theatregoers have seen him through the years in a variety of plays. (Three resulted in Tony nominations, including his memorable interpretation of Captain Queeg in an otherwise indifferent revival of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial in 2006.) He’s a character actor of such subtlety and range, with a tendency to slip with such quicksilver efficiency into the DNA of the roles he handles, that he’s always in danger of being underrated. The first time I saw him was as George Deever in Jack O’Brien’s 1987 TV adaptation of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, in a dream ensemble with James Whitmore, Aidan Quinn, Michael Learned and Joan Allen. It’s a one-scene role, but the scene is a beauty. And no one in my experience has done more with it to establish the character of this tremulous, self-doubting young man, who has awakened to the truth that his incarcerated father was scapegoated for his partner’s crime but is all too easily seduced by the memories of his happy childhood in the bosom of the partner’s family. George learns the truth but he’d prefer to continue to believe the lie. Aficionados of The X-Files will certainly recall him as Roland Fuller, probably the creepiest of the show’s supernatural villains. And though I haven’t seen everything Ivanek has done, it’s hard to imagine that he’s ever been better than he is as Swann, whose charm and wit mask not only an absence of compassion but a vicious taste for vengeance. He desires not only release from prison but the defeat and even the destruction of the man who put him there, though he’s guilty as hell and clearly engineered the movement of the corpse so it would be discovered miles away from where he’d originally dumped it. When Stone outmaneuvers him in the final act, securing evidence of a second murder and forcing him into a position where he’s compelled to confess to both killings, all of Swann’s resources are suddenly unavailable to him and he’s left psychologically naked and, for the first time, speechless. Ivanek stands helpless; he looks as if he was being eaten up by his own fury. It’s a formidable moment.

Ben Stone is a prosecutor who always acts out of moral righteousness and sometimes, when his sense of justice is offended, he’s also capable of rage. So this is one hell of a contest, and when Stone seizes his victory in the final encounter, Moriarty is at his best. For Stone, civility and respect are the coverings of good inexorably at work in the world, so he’s repelled by Swann’s presumptuousness.  For the last time, Swann has the effrontery to call him “Ben”; Stone points out that in polite society it’s not acceptable to use a stranger’s first name unless invited to do so. With his usual phony jocularity, Swann objects that it’s not like Ben to deny an opponent one last joust; Stone replies, with delicate calm, that it’s clear that Swann doesn’t know him at all. Checkmate. This is as exquisitely acted a two-hander as any scene in Law & Order’s long history.

For a fine, succinct rundown of "American Dream." see the invaluable Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion by the late co-founder of Critics At Large, Kevin Courrier, and the late Susan Green, one of the site’s earlier contributors. My late, much-missed colleagues and friends identify Ivanek’s portrait of Phillip Swann as “sly” and “thrilling.”

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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