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A CurtainUp Review

I've been accused of being a showman, to which I plead guilty. . .with an explanation. If I have an ability to attract attention, it means I can draw attention to my Clients' causes. Sometimes I purposefully leverage my —notoriety? — to give these people the public consideration they deserve.
— William Kunstler.
If you asked me to name my favorite show featuring Jeff McCarthy, I'd be hard pressed to pick just one. I first became a McCarthy fan when I saw his Officer Lockstock in the hit musical Urinetown.. His Sweeney Todd was one of the most memorable of the several I've seen. Most recently I was bowled over by the hunky McCarthy's courageous portrayal of a shy lady named Lola Cola in Southern Comfort,an off-beat musical about a transgender community.

While musicals have dominated Mr. McCarthy's resume, I saw him display fine all-around acting chops as Joe Keller in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. When 59E59 Theaters scheduled a run of Jeffrey Sweet's play about the larger than life radical lawyer William Kunstler (1919-1996) with Jeff McCarthy as the title character, I signed right on.

Since Sweet's play is set shortly before Kunstler's death, the real Kunstler was hardly in shape to go dashing up and down the aisle as director Megan Fay has McCarthy do throughout the 90 minutes. Yet, the younger, more vigorous and better looking McCarthy, with his own ample silver gray tresses roughed up, somehow evokes memories of what the real Kunstler looked like . Most importantly, he nails the man's overall persona with an almost uncanny authenticity.

Loaded with drama as the the activist Kunstler's story is, a play with a plot that is essentially the chronicle of a famous lawyer's headline making cases could easily come off as lecture of interest mainly to law students. Though a lecture hall setting at an unnamed university is exactly how the play is set up, it's not cobbled together from that man's own words but very much Mr. Sweet's. The result: A well-crafted and smartly organized script that's infused with generous dollops of humor, and in in which even secondary character ends up being more than just a device to avoid monologue stasis.

The play begins by establishing that Kunstler's speaking engagement is not entirely welcome. Cases he's taken on since his glory days as a champion of civil rights and anti-Vietnam war causes, have toppled him off his pedestal. Thus, the first person on stage is that second character, Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley, a charming and ultimately meaningful voice of the younger heirs of the African-Americans to whom Kunstler was once a hero). As head of the speakers' bureau she's in charge of welcoming and introducing Kunstler, her first job is to cut down a cloth dummy labeled "Traitor" and clear away trash tossed through the window of the lecture hall.

Those few scene setting moments serve as a perfect introduction to Kunstler. Accustomed as he is to controversy, the guest enters unfazed by the protests. McCarthy zestfully slips full force into his feisty character.

You can't really accuse him of chewing the scenery since there's not much to chew in James J. Fenton's set (a bare gray backup wall, a podium and a few chairs). Actually, with Kunstler so frequently in the aisles and occasionally interacting with the audience, the viewers are stand-ins for the law students and thus part of the scenery.

For pre-baby boomer aged audience members the cases that are incorporated into Kunstler's very personal lecture may not ring a bell. If the budget had permitted it, some projections on that gray back wall would have helped clarify and enhance the experience for everyone. Still, the narrative is detailed enough to serve as a colorful history lessons for the younger generations. For older viewers, and probably the biggest target audience, the play will rekindle their own memories of the Civil Rights days, the Vietnam protests and Watergate scandals.

Mr. Sweet's vivid integration of so many of these historic events is remarkable — especially the vivid recollections of the infamous Attica prison riots which had enough drama for a 2 1/2 our play at the Public Theater couple of years ago ( ToasT).

Besides keeping things lively and encouraging, but not overdoing, Kunstler's interaction with the audience and Ms. Kelley's Kerry, Ms. Fay has deftly injected a brief South Pacific riff in tribute to McCarthy's talents as a singer. Fun as that is, McCarthy's booming vocals have a musicality even when he's not singing.

Kunstler has already had several other productions since its launch at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival. It has all the ingredients to insure many more productions. As I already mentioned, it would benefit from the addition of some projections. However, the current easy on the budget staging does make it viable for many more artistic directors. The small cast is not only economical but offers a great star turn for one actor and a nice getting started role for another.

Our Berkshire critic Gloria Miller is already looking forward to Jeff McCarthy's bringing it to Barrington Stage in Pittsfield this summer. I'm pretty sure she'll like it, as will her readers.

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Kunstler by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Meagen Fay
Cast: Jeff McCarthy (Kunstler), Nambi E. Kelley (Kerry).
Sets: James J.Fenton
Costumes: Elivio Bovenzi
Lighting: Betsy Adams
Original Music and Sound: Will Severin
Stage Manager: Mary Jane Hansen
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
From 2/17/17; opening/2/23/17; closing 3/12/17.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 and 7:15 PM. Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 21st press preview

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