OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic
"Dying is no big deal; the least of us can manage that. The trick is how you live, and Mr. Bill Kunstler lived. He lived with a searing pace, a furious energy, and overwhelming love of right and dislike of wrong.” – Jimmy Breslin in “The New York Times”
Attorney William Kunstler was an important figure in American jurisprudence. “Kunstler,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters, highlights Mr. Kunstler’s career as the controversial attorney who never shied away from taking on difficult cases or difficult judges. Kunstler believed his client deserved “the best possible defense whatever he was!” Jeff McCarthy plays William Kunstler with an obvious adoration for the character but the play does not live up to any expectation of discovering what really motivated the iconic lawyer throughout his distinguished career.
The primary difficulty with “Kunstler” is playwright Jeffrey Sweet’s script itself. The audience leans forward when Mr. McCarthy highlights Kunstler’s early cases involving “civil rights, Vietnam, the Indian movement, the Berrigans, and free speech.” Even when his cases “declined in nobility” and Kunstler “only chose from what [was] offered [him],” the narrative describing those later controversial cases (John Gotti, Yusef Salaam) rings with authenticity. The argument Mr. McCarthy’s Kunstler proffers is “that when I see the forces of the government cloaking itself in the garb of legality and going after someone who is at a particular disadvantage – whether it’s because of race or some existing prejudice or stereotype – it’s my impulse to try to level the playing field.” This also rings with honesty. The audience leans back, however, when the playwright wanders into other less interesting territory.
Mr. McCarthy’s performance energy seems to rise and fall with the irregularities in the script and Meagen Fay’s direction is apparently not strong enough nor consistent enough to keep the action moving forward on an even keel. The section about attending Woodstock and living alone in the West Village are particularly leaden and Mr. McCarthy seems to lose his footing here. What is the point of learning about Kunstler’s musical tastes? The actor does the best he can with the material given to him and the moments he seizes on Kunstler’s character and digs into Kunstler’s motivation are the most satisfying.
Nambi E. Kelley’s Kerry, Kunstler’s host at the event, is relegated to sitting stage left and exhibiting a variety of expressions – some of disbelief, some of disapproval. One wonders why this talented actor has been consigned to such a passive role. Or, again, could the director have provided more opportunities for the role?
The scenic design by James J. Fenton easily identifies the setting as a university lecture hall. In the stage directions for the play, it is clear that the playwright intended the detritus on the floor and the strewn chairs to be a simple extension of the setting. Someone on the creative team decided to add a Kunstler in effigy hanging upstage which completely confuses the audience: was this the site of an earlier protest? This is only one of several odd choices that weaken the strength of the script rather than strengthening it, including the strange lighting cues throughout, especially in the opening scenes.
“Kunstler” does provide moments of interesting narrative: one just needs to lower one’s overall expectations to appreciate those moments.
“Kunstler” is produced by The Creative Place International in Association with AND Theatre Company.
The cast of “Kunstler features Nambi E. Kelley and Jeff McCarthy.
The creative team includes James J. Fenton (scenic design); Betsy Adams (lighting design); Will Severin (sound design); and Elivia Bovenzi (costume design). The production stage manager is Mary Jane Hansen. Production photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2017.
“Kunstler” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, March 12 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 p.m.; Friday at 8:15 p.m.; Saturday at 2:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday at 3:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Please note: there are no Sunday evening performances on February 26 or March 12. Tickets are $35.00 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.