If ever there were a time to be reminded about the leftist/ radical 1960s/70s, that time is now, and playwright Jeffrey Sweet's newest play KUNSTLER, about the activist lawyer William Kunstler, played by the ever-versatile Jeff McCarthy, arrives at 59E59 right on time. Sweet smartly eschews a one-man show: he constructs a scenario where Kunstler is being introduced by a law student to talk about his career late in his life to young law students. The theater becomes the lecture hall.
Sweet smartly introduces conflict through this fictionalized character, a well-mannered, polite student - young, female and Black (deftly played Nambi B. Kelley) - who gets around to pulling Kunstler - Jewish, white, male - up short for his defense of less-than-noble clients, like Mafia boss John Gotti, late in his career. But before Sweet gets to that, Kunstler’s presentation - his lecture - is the most informative, fascinating , and yes, entertaining, 90-minute trip through the Vietnam era - the Chicago 7, the Berrigan brothers, Martin Luther King, Attica, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Wounded Knee - on the New York stage in a while. Sweet melds the public record with Kunstler's personal anecdotes. Most revelatory is the conversation Kunstler recalls with a racist Mississippi governor early in his career, which propelled him into defending minorities in civil rights cases.
The astonishing Jeff McCarthy, who has played everybody from Don Quixote to Sweeney Todd, from a trans woman in Southern Comfort to Fagin in Oliver, faces a difficult challenge. From the critical documentary produced by his two daughters (who gave rights to Sweet for the project but did not get script approval) and from memories of those still around who knew Kunstler, he was an egomaniac, a publicity-hound and a downright prick. McCarthy plays Kunstler warts and all, cantankerous, sometime bombastic, certainly larger than life, but also as a private person who’s tacitly acknowledging he’s getting beyond the autumn of his life. (McCarthy physically transforms his large frame into the figure of Kunstler as if he emerged from a grainy, newspaper AP photo,right down to the sagging shoulders, plus with arm ticks suggesting onset of cardiovascular disease. (Kunstler died of it in 1995 at the age of 76.) McCarthy makes Kunstler’s piss and vinegar inescapably appealing.
Sweet’s character study is most remarkable for saying what it says without being didactic. Besides playwright, Sweet is an author and journalist. It shows. Sweet lets Kunstler and the record speak for themselves. And in so doing, KUNSTLER, gives renewed voice for the fight for civil rights that still needs to be fought.
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