In the 1970s, when this play was first produced, it seemed provocatively hip to place a woman on the Supreme Court bench and have her hail from the bastion of well-to-do conservatism, Orange County. That her judicial adversary would be an unapologetic Eastern liberal just added frosting to the cake. Now, 30 years later, after Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have served with distinction, much of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's play seems quaintly dated. Though a hubbub still swells when a woman is mentioned for a nomination, it is more hype than consternation over gender.
In this production, durable actor Ralph Waite plays Associate Justice Daniel Snow. He projects a crusty, irascible antagonist to the president's newest appointment to the court, Judge Ruth Loomis (Laurie O'Brien). The scrappy exchanges between these foes on issues such as pornography and big business give vitality to the proceedings, but opening night found Waite and O'Brien still grappling with lines and chemistry. Waite is well-cast as an eccentric near-retiree, though a later scene in which he posits a physical attraction for his younger colleague seems awkward on both sides. O'Brien is suitably pugnacious, but it occasionally overtakes her. She is best-appreciated in her less confrontational scenes.
Scott Roberts is a charming and believable law clerk for Justice Snow, and Bruce B. Mathews as a peevish associate justice brings the largely token set of other justices to life. Director Allan Miller keeps the action moving, but he allows indulgent overreaching in querulous exchanges between the two principals. Even so, humor and one-liners override most excesses.
Victoria Profitt's dual court chambers and Kathi O'Donohue's lighting add class to the proceedings. Being able to use Supreme Court attendants makes the mechanics of scene-changing a seamless plus.
The ongoing war between conservatives and liberals is familiar territory. Lawrence and Lee are adept at the balance between opinion and banter, making this light entertainment engaging.
Presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Sun. 7 p.m. only Apr. 16, 23, May 14 & May 21. Dark Wed. 8 p.m. Apr. 5, 12, May 17, 24, 31 & Jun. 1.) Apr. 8-Jun. 4. (310) 477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.