Thursday, February 23, 2017

140. Review: KUNSTLER (seen February 22, 2017)

"Court Jester"

The Freedom Riders; the Catonsville Nine; the Chicago Eight; Attica; Wounded Knee; John Gotti; the Central Park Five: these markers bring to mind some of the most controversial, milestone legal cases of the second half of the 20th century, often concerned with issues of civil rights, and usually involving widely unpopular defendants. And at their heart—the volatile, outspoken, flamboyant, showboating, politically radical defense attorney, William M. Kunstler (1919-95), a New York-born Jew whose long, gaunt features haloed by a mane of frizzy gray hair showed up regularly in the news media.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Kunstler is the subject of Jeffrey Sweet’s mesmerizing play of that name, sharply directed by Meagan Fay. Originally seen at the Hudson Stage Company in 2013, it's now at 59E59 Theaters, with the feisty lawyer brought to life in a strikingly magnetic performance by Jeff McCarthy. McCarthy, better-looking than Kunstler but, with his considerable mop of long, white hair acting as a reasonably effective stand-in for Kunstler’s somewhat scantier do, quickly makes you forget their physical disparities. Just as would the original were he alive to do a show about his career, McCarthy electrifies the audience with his brilliance, his passion, and his ability to recount his inside and outside the courtroom antics with verve, commitment, and humor.
Jeff McCarthy, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Dressed in a plain gray suit and tie, he creates an animated image of rumpled honesty. He bursts into song or jerky, arm-waving dance movements, alters his voice to mimic people in his narrative, introduces self-deprecating comments, constantly places his eyeglasses on top of his pate, tries out law-related zingers he intends using at a birthday party, and walks off the stage to directly address specific audience members. Sometimes he seems more like a hyperactive college professor than someone once considered America’s most famous lawyer. Now and then, though, for all his vigor, we’re reminded by certain movements (supplemented by Will Severin's sound score of thumping heartbeats) that he’s experiencing symptoms of the heart disease that killed him at 76.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Sweet’s play wisely sets the play at a university campus in 1995, where Kunstler has been invited to speak to its law students, a choice that has led to protests against his presence; vitriolic offstage voices fill the air.  As they say, the more things change . . .  In fact, at the start, an effigy of Kunstler, adorned with a sign declaring him a traitor, hangs over the podium at which he’s scheduled to speak.

James J. Fenton’s elegantly simple set resembles a lecture hall platform surrounded by 11 marble-like slabs; Kunstler, noting that the law is not something permanently engraved on a slab, uses them to allude to the monoliths in 2001. Betsy J. Adams’s lighting, however, is a bit excessive in underlining each narrative shift; the material is so strong on its own that the multiple cues tend to draw unnecessary attention to the play’s theatricality.
Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Similarly wise is having the law student who introduces Kunstler, a member of the committee that invited him, be a young, black woman named Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), who initially opposed his selection. Although the play is dominated by Kunstler’s larger-than-life presence, which could easily have led Sweet to write it as a one-man play, the somewhat uncertain, initially shy Kerry gives Kunstler an ideal foil against which to express his ideas. At one point Kunstler has her read Judge Hoffman’s words from the transcript of the Chicago Eight trial. Although often silent, taking notes, and sometimes looking askance at those remarks (especially the racially tinged ones) she finds questionable, Kelly offers a mirror against which to test one’s own reactions.
Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
For much of the play’s uninterrupted 90 minutes, Kunstler, addressing the audience as if it were the law students to whom he was asked to speak, recounts—with occasional remarks on his personal life—why he became a lawyer, how his career began conventionally enough, how he became engaged in politically sensitive cases, what the substance of the major cases was (Kerry calls them his “greatest hits”), how he tussled with certain judges, and what his thoughts are on the judicial system. Despite the emphasis on legal issues, the colorful dialogue remains easily accessible, while the stories Kunstler tells grow increasingly more compelling. As often happens at such plays, sounds of recognition leap out of people’s mouths as they catch his references.
Jeff McCarthy. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.
Toward the end, Kerry actively engages Kunstler regarding his defense of individuals like mobster John Gotti or Yusuf Salaam, one of the boys accused of attacking the “Central Park jogger.” Salaam was, as Kerry’s postscript reminds us, eventually exonerated, but as Kunstler insists, guilt or innocence “isn’t the point! He deserved the best possible defense whatever he was.” 

Jeffrey Sweet’s Kunstler, though, needs no defense. It’s simply excellent theatre, with a magnificent central character given a splendid performance in a consistently engrossing tale about the weaknesses in our judicial system and the need for more Kunstlers to make it do its job the right way.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through March 12