Kunstler feature image

There should be a whole new word for “disheveled” to describe Jeff McCarthy in Kunstler. As William Kunstler in Jeffrey Sweet’s one-act snapshot of the liberal 20th-century lawyer, McCarthy looks terrible, sporting un-manicured sideburns, messy gray hair with Poindexter eyeglasses nestled in it, an awful tie, and a suit that looks like it was rolled around in dirt before curtain. The look reinforces that this legal near-icon wasn’t into appearances, and it jibes nicely with the shambling, authority-challenging portrait McCarthy and Sweet paint. After a strong beginning, Kunstler settles down into wandering monologue, and leaves some vital questions about its subject insufficiently answered. Still, this Kunstler-at-law is lively company. 

About that beginning: on James J. Fenton’s simple set—gray chairs, gray floor, gray backdrop, gray chandelier (before a gray audience)—a dummy Kunstler has been hanged in effigy, with a homemade “Traitor” sign around it. Will Severin’s excellent sound design reveals a crowd yelling “Kunstler is a traitor!” outside in the lobby at 59E59 Theaters. Unless you’re already a Kunstler expert, you won’t know why they’re yelling that until near the end. Apparently we’re at a university, probably Columbia, in 1995 (cue Sweet’s baldly expository dialogue), where Kunstler is due to speak, and Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), the law student assigned to handle him, is cleaning up the mess left by the protesters who hanged the dummy. Enter Kunstler, hands in pockets, shuffling around the stage in unruly fashion, restless, hands twitching, seemingly with attention deficit disorder. McCarthy talks fast and behaves distractedly, and varies his rhythms so much that you can’t tell whether it’s an actor’s choice or he’s just having trouble remembering Sweet’s voluminous text. 

Above and top: Jeff McCarthy plays famed lawyer William Kunstler, and Nambi E. Kelley is his handler Kerry at a university speaking engagement in Jeffrey Sweet's  Kunstler . Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Above and top: Jeff McCarthy plays famed lawyer William Kunstler, and Nambi E. Kelley is his handler Kerry at a university speaking engagement in Jeffrey Sweet's Kunstler. Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp.

From there it’s largely a one-man show, as Kunstler recalls to the crowd (us) the long-ago highlights of his career: defending the Freedom Riders who sought to integrate Southern lunch counters; losing the battle but winning the war in the trial of the Chicago Seven; brokering a peace at Attica. The anecdotes come thick and fast, and when Kunstler asks Kerry to read lines from Judge Julius Hoffman in the Chicago trial, it smacks of "we have to give this woman more to do." As Kerry, Kelley expertly navigates a conflicted disciple, one who admires Kunstler’s past successes but has reservations about later clients he’s taken on: mobster John Gotti, alleged Central Park rapist Yusef Salaam, Long Island Railroad murderer Colin Ferguson. Her argument against the last is particularly interesting, and convincing: by defending Ferguson’s murders as “black rage,” she posits, isn’t he trivializing genuine instances of the same?

Kunstler’s response, that every defendant deserves the best defense he can get, points up a problem I have with the material: we don’t know whether to like this guy or not. Yes, he’s a great lefty lawyer, but he’s also morally compromised and given to cheap theatrics. In presenting the good and bad Kunstler, Sweet doesn’t give us an easily graspable portrait to take away with us. 

Other arresting figures from 20th-century history turn up: Roy Cohn (a onetime, and much-hated, colleague of Kunstler’s), Nelson Rockefeller (who refused to appear before Attica prisoners, possibly triggering the prison riot), Joseph McCarthy (did you know Kunstler did his will?). We don’t hear much about Kunstler’s private life, other than he married, had two daughters, philandered, divorced, and remarried. Along the way, we do get some good, nasty lawyer jokes, and we see in Kunstler’s twitches and unsteadiness the heart failure that will kill him a little over a month later. 

I’m still sore at Jeff McCarthy for his smug, lay-the-irony-on-with-a-trowel turn in Urinetown over a dozen years ago, and here, too, subtle is not what this actor does. Encouraged by director Meagen Fay to break down that blasted fourth wall, he keeps wandering into the audience, hugging people, handing them fragments of speeches he’s written down. It’s a showboating performance, but then, Kunstler admits to and relishes being a showman, so there may be no other way to play it. McCarthy looks like he’s having a blast, and his enthusiasm is such that, in relating various legal victories, he sometimes wins audience applause. 

McCarthy as the showboating attorney Kunstler.

McCarthy as the showboating attorney Kunstler.

It’s more of a lecture than a play, a you-are-there account of some decisive trials over the past 60 years, interspersed with some still-salient meditations on the nature of the law—notably how “due process” can be used by the powers that be to perpetrate injustice. But hey, at this particular moment in time, when it feels like another Attica may be just around the corner, or the unrest of the summer of ’68 could easily happen at the next anti-Trump meetup rally, it’s rather bracing to reencounter Kunstler—a longtime, if not unblemished, hero of the powerless and disenfranchised. He spits out some helpful advice about winning the big battles, while losing a few of the smaller ones, over the long run. And he’s pretty entertaining doing it.

The Creative Place International and AND Theater Company's Kunstler plays through March 12 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and Sundays, and at 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 3:15 p.m. Sunday (No evening performance March 12. Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200 or online at Ticketcentral.com.)

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