The music that blasts through the theater before the beginning of Johnny Law: Courtroom Crusader is funky, soulful, and . . . distinctly unlawyerly. In this spirited solo show, actor Tim Ryan Meinelschmidt grabs this musical energy and runs with it, riffing amiably through an entertaining and fascinating look at the life of one lawyer—yes, his name is Johnny Law—as he attempts to put some personality on a persnickety profession. But this loquacious lawyer doesn’t stop at unearthing the cool from the courtroom. Meinelschmidt and his cowriter, attorney Thomas L. Fox, use the fictional Law to explore the ethical dilemmas and crises that confront any lawyer, from defending belligerent (and clearly guilty) prisoners to darting through pesky objections and insufferable judges to get a point across to a jury. (He even offers practical-sounding advice on how to respond if you’re ever pulled over on the road for a field sobriety test—who knows if it really works, but how often do you come away from theater with free legal advice?)
Briskly directed by Christopher Fessenden, Johnny Law snaps to life through the tireless tenacity of Meinelschmidt, who brings a refreshingly direct (eye contact!) and gregarious (funny jokes!) approach to the material. Stuck in a hotel room the night before a big trial—defending a student accused of drug possession—Law fields calls from the district attorney and the boy’s mother while reminiscing about his colorful career, which includes stints in the U.S. Attorney’s office, public defender’s office, and private practice.
Although a few of these anecdotes ramble on a bit (the shedding of 10 minutes or so would help), they provide the best bits of material. Meinelschmidt is an impressive vocal chameleon and plies his booming baritone into various cadences and octaves—he morphs seamlessly into the thunderous, James Earl Jones-like tones of a regal judge, doing a quick reverse to send up an adenoidal, embittered law professor.
Lawyers are (in)famously dramatic, and while Johnny Law harnesses the best of this theatricality, it stops short at becoming flip. By sprinkling in a liberal dose of sobering stories (the frightening effect of drugs and alcohol on crime) and devastating descriptions (the realities of life behind bars), it ultimately makes a convincing case for the need for committed, courageous lawyers. And as the music portends, those litigators might just have some soul after all.
Johnny Law: Courtroom Crusader is part of the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival.