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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Such a Full Sea

LIVING THROUGH THE KUNSTLER ERA meant enjoying intense evening-news exposure to the events that shaped those decades: the arrest of the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, the Attica uprising, the return of violence to Wounded Knee – and the repeated efforts of the United States government to railroad or otherwise bamboozle so many defendants into groundless convictions.

Nick Wyman and Gillian Glasco
in Jeffrey Sweet's
As depicted in Jeffrey Sweet’s play “Kunstler,” the notorious attorney recounts, with characteristic theatrics – some of the high points of his history. He has been invited to speak to law students at an unspecified college (but probably Columbia, his alma mater). It is 1995, the last year of his life. There is an aural background of anti-Kunstler protests – “Kunstler is a traitor!” “Kunstler must go!” – and the hostility is shared by Kerry (Gillian Glasco), a young law student who has been dragooned into introducing the notorious guest.

Even though Kerry is well aware of Kunstler’s commendable work for civil rights causes – and has a personal stake in one of those cases that we discover only at the end of the play – she is not prepared to forgive him for taking on such hated clients as John Gotti and Yusef Salaam. Glasco resists the obvious temptation to be a militant firebrand, instead nuancing her performance with shadings to that irritation. She’s fascinated by the man she wishes to hate, and makes a very credible show of compromising her dislike of him without compromising her character’s integrity. And she excels at the equally difficult task of being an onstage listener throughout much of the show

As Kunstler, Nick Wyman has the role of a lifetime. Clad in a tired suit, shambling across the small playing area, he puts a riveting voice to work on a text that weaves jokes and reminiscence, play-acting and Puccini arias. Yet the bonhomie shows itself as a mask: Kunstler is still driven by passion, but he’s worn down. The admiration he expresses for the protestors outside at the top of the show is only reflexive, yet he gains energy by the end of the piece and you’re convinced he’s ready to step into the dock tomorrow. Wyman achieves this through virtuoso use of timing, of facial expression, of the way he drops into a chair. When he hilariously impersonates a judge, it’s tempting at first to think that it’s Wyman the actor showing off, but it’s soon clear that it’s Wyman the actor who has turned transparent behind Kunstler the very accomplished actor, who could himself put on a hell of a show.

Reminiscence can be deadly in a play, but Sweet never allows the script to drag. Kunstler is also trying out jokes for his upcoming birthday party at Caroline’s Comedy Club, so there are, be warned, lawyer jokes – but they’re framed by a truly funny device. And the wit that flashes throughout Kunstler’s telling of his courtroom tales keeps the show from ever flagging. Kunstler’s character is shown in all of its complexity, and we’re reminded of a history we never should forget, a history characterized by the kind of government interference that goes on today. As Sweet has Kunstler put it:
The thing about these past trials – they have this aura of legitimacy, this aura of legality. I suspect that more good men have gone to their deaths through legal systems than through all the illegalities in the history of man. Six million disposed of during the Third Reich? Legal. Sacco and Vanzetti? Quite legal. The Haymarket defendants? Legal. Socrates? Jesus? The hundreds of rape trials throughout the south when black men were condemned to death? Legal. Those in power learn that it is far better to work their will through some semblance of legality. And they get away with these injustices again and again and call it due process.
It’s all well pitched for the small Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre on MacDougal Street, a tribute to director Meagen Fay (who knew Kunstler), giving an admirable feeling of consequence to what’s merely two actors, two chairs, a lectern, and a damn fine script.

“Kunstler,” part of the NY Fringe Festival, continues through Aug. 23. More info about it is here.

Written by Jeffrey Sweet
Directed by Meagen Fay
The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre
115 MacDougal Street, New York, NY
Through August 23, 2014

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