Review by Robert Gulack
Jeffrey Sweet, an award-winning playwright who brings to his genuine passion for history real gifts for humor and lyricism, has set himself an almost impossible task in in his new play, KUNSTLER, now starring Jeff McCarthy in a production at one of the 59E59 theaters. In this two-hander, Sweet brings back to this world perhaps the most flamboyant legal firebrand of the 1960s — one William Moses Kunstler, who, answering the call of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Berrigan brothers, and other progressive heroes of the time, fully lived up to the implications of that reverberating middle name.
The challenge Sweet has set himself is to outline the most important passages in a highly provocative life employing only two actors. So, as the theatrical event begins — recreating Kunstler giving an autobiographical lecture at a law school — we hear the daunting offstage voices of incensed protesters, who obviously hate Kunstler and wish he had never been invited to speak. But the members of this mob (who have just lynched Kunstler in effigy) are never given the chance to make clear what has caused them to become so angry. We then see Kunstler lecture, presenting the story of his life, not to those protesters, but to us — people who immediately become highly sympathetic to him. He loosens us up with a few opening jokes (“What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 70? Answer: Your Honor”) and we’re on his side from there on out.
Another County Heard From
It is only in the final section of the play, when Kunstler has completed his presentation to our applause, unmarred by any hostile interruptions, that Kunstler finally has to deal with a critical voice. The law student hosting the occasion — in private — lists her very serious reservations about his career, and he seeks to answer her. This is obviously the closest the evening comes to a conventional display of conflict, and it is also one of the most successful parts of the evening. The law student certainly has valid points to make. A defense lawyer does have the obligation to defend, on principle, the most despicable people in the world, as Clarence Darrow defended the child-killers, Leopold and Loeb. But the lawyer doesn’t have to hug such clients in public, as Kunstler hugged John Gotti. (While Sweet doesn’t mention it, Kunstler himself was a member of a criminal gang as a young teenager. Perhaps, in hugging Gotti, Kunstler was hugging that part of himself he left behind when he went on from gang life to become Phi Beta Kappa at Yale College, win the Bronze Star as an Army officer in World War II, and earn his law degree at Columbia.)
For the bulk of the play, however, it is just Kunstler himself, without any opposing voice, narrating a number of his most crucial cases as he experienced them from his own point of view. Some of these memories — particularly, Kunstler’s role in the life-or-death struggle to find a peaceful outcome when the prisoners took over Attica — are so dramatic and moving that they become thrilling theater even presented in this one-sided manner. Sweet takes us into the realm of real tragedy as he forces us to contemplate how the horrors of prison life, year after year, ultimately issued in the violent response of the Attica mutineers. But a lot of the cases Kunstler takes us through would have been more compelling if Kunstler throughout had been forced to cope with a rebellious and rambunctious audience. Give Sweet half a dozen actors to scatter among the audience members, calling Kunstler’s recollection of events into question and forcing him to justify his most controversial choices, and you might really have something.
Kunstler was certainly willing, not only to party hard with the left-wing rebels he was defending, but to go to prison with them, if necessary. (Kunstler left the Chicago Seven trial facing a contempt sentence of over four years.) What an audience of law students might have called into question, however, is whether Kunstler was willing to give his beloved clients the hard, unromantic work of truly thorough preparation for trial to go along with all that showboating. Or, to give another instance, when Kunstler points out that, following the bloody repression of the Attica revolt, inmates were tortured by the prison staff, a hostile audience could point out the tortures inflicted by the inmates during the brief moment when the prisoners were in control. Kunstler makes a big deal out of the fact that a former Attorney General of the United States, Ramsey Clark, was denied the right to testify for the defense at the Chicago Seven trial. A hostile audience could have forced Kunstler to clarify what specific, legally relevant evidence Clark could have provided. Was Clark — the sitting Attorney General at the time — personally present when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were making their plans for the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago? One doubts it. Certainly, Clark could have stated that his legal assessment of the case differed from that the current Attorney General, who was a Nixon man. But is it proper for a witness to offer legal advice to the judge?
A Winning Production
Sweet is fortunate to have the vital and charismatic Jeff McCarthy, who was recently such a splendid Don Quixote for the Barrington Stage’s MAN OF LA MANCHA, to charm the audience as Kunstler. McCarthy is, however, fourteen years younger than the man he’s depicting, and looks even younger. Kunstler was about to succumb to heart failure, and perhaps more could be done to make McCarthy appear sunken and frail. Nambi E. Kelley certainly conveys the brains, elegance, and discipline of the law student who gets to confront Kunstler; but, again, we could see more clearly that she is surprised to hear herself saying what she’s saying, but that she just can’t help but let it pour out of her, as her passion overwhelms her reserve.
The scenery and lighting (by, respectively James J. Fenton and Betsy Adams) are both handsome and varied. Special note should be given to the way in which Will Severin’s music and sound design carry us in our hearts from one of Kunstler’s battlegrounds to another. Particularly effective is an enigmatic grinding noise beneath our feet, that at first calls to mind the sound of the god Mars abandoning Antony in Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, but eventually proves to be prophetic of the heart trouble that will fell the hero.
KUNSTLER runs in New York until March 12, 2017, and will also open for previews May 18 as part of the Barrington Stage’s season in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
KUNSTLER by Jeffrey Sweet, directed by Meagen Fay, and presented by The Creative Place International in association with AND Theater Company at Theater B, 59E59 Theaters.
ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He studied law at Columbia and Yale, earning his JD from Yale Law School. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE. As an actor, he appeared in a recent NYC staged reading of Jeffrey Sweet’s THE ACTION AGAINST SOL SCHUMANN.
Photo Credit: Jeff McCarthy, Nambi E. Kelley. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.