Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The show begins as young, African-American law student Kerry Nicholas (Erin Roche) manages to take away an effigy-type dummy of Kunstler which hangs above a lectern. A sign saying "traitor" and the stuffed figure, too, are awkwardly shoved into the trash. She briefly introduces the guest speaker and William Kunstler has a few one-liners (part of a stand-up act he has fashioned) to try out on an audience. His birthday party, at Caroline's in Manhattan, is about to take place and he intends to play the comedian. It is 1995, by the way, and after Kerry's introduction, Kunstler steps up with: "Question: What do you call a lawyer gone bad? Answer: A Senator. Question: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 70? Answer: Your honor."
He segues into a colloquial, sometimes humorous, exceptionally educational monologue which is something of a highlight reel of his career. We hear about the Freedom Riders from the early 1960s and that segment of civil rights activity. Kunstler was on the scene when Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (as part of The Chicago Seven group) were unabashedly aggressive if not fearless during the summer of 1968 and the Democratic National Convention. Kunstler stood up for Father Daniel Berrigan and defended inmates at Attica Prison in 1971, crime leader John Gotti, and, finally, Yusef Salaam (one of those said to attack the jogger in Central Park). The latter was ultimately exonerated.
The individual-as-villain to whom Kunstler expressively and physically alludes, more than a couple of times, is non other than Roy Cohn, a prosecutor of the past. (That name surfaced a number of months ago when it was revealed that Cohn was Donald Trump's mentor and close friend during the early 1980s; this is not mentioned in Sweet's script. Cohn is also a featured character in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.)
Bill Kunstler was not universally liked or adored. Every so often as the current production evolves it becomes evident, through voices, that people are in disagreement with the attorney and his choices.
Sweet has structured his script so that Kerry becomes a foil for Kunstler's thoughts, declarative positions, and opinions. Actress Erin Roche, fittingly for her role as a student, is not too polished, but Kerry's revelation toward the very end of the play adds texture to the piece.
McCarthy is superb. He seeks not to imitate the title character but fuses something of himself with that of Kunstler. Husky and with a full head of silvery hair, he very much looks the part. Moreover, charged and charging often, he brings volumes of spit and spirit to the role. He is rumpled but he is vigorous, a man in motion. Those who have seen this actor in previous roles know he can sing with gusto and with heart. His starring turn in Man of La Mancha still rings clearly. Hence, it's not surprising that his rendition of a lyric line from "Some Enchanted Evening" is welcome.
Sweet's play has obvious import for those who lived through Wounded Knee, the Vietnam War, Watergate and more. It should work as an instructive historical vehicle (much more varied than an essay on the page or screen) for younger viewers who are not as familiar with the subject matter. Once in a while, McCarthy takes to the aisles within this small housethis allows the versatile actor to amplify further through accessibility.
In all, Kunstler mixes politics and drama with a personal life, one which would end only a few months after the time period of this play. He was a firebrand and he was, at times, outrageousthe man never backed off or away.
Kunstler continues at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through June 10th, 2017. For tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or visit barringtonstageco.org.