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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 23, 2017

Jeff McCarthy and
Nambi E. Kelley
Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp

If the names Bobby Seale, the Berrigan brothers, the Catonsville Nine, the Chicago Seven, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin stir up memories and make your heart thump just a little faster, then you are (a) probably a liberal, (b) likely to be a member of the Baby Boomer generation and (c) the perfect audience for Jeffrey Sweet's Kunstler, a play that imagines a college seminar presented by the bigger-than-life, controversial attorney William Kunstler.

Now on view at 59E59 Theaters, Kunstler stars Jeff McCarthy, masterfully exuding charm and a kind of shaggy elitism as the radical lawyer who made a name for himself through his work on behalf of civil rights activists and notorious criminals alike. He was also quite adept at publicity-stirring grandstanding actions that made him both a towering figure of respect and an object of scorn. Indeed, as the play opens, we can hear the sounds of protest coming from outside the lecture hall: "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, William Kunstler has got to go!" Hanging from the ceiling is an effigy of Kunstler, as the man himself enters and prepares to give a talk to those students interested enough to venture past the demonstrators to come in and give a listen.

For much of the 90-minute production, you are in the hands of a master storyteller, one who is used to the limelight and to regaling audiences with anecdotes about his "greatest hits," famous court fights on behalf of civil rights and anti-war protesters from the 1960s, some of whom he speaks with a certain tone of condescension. He also refers sneeringly to judges with whom he has locked horns during his career. The judicial system, he says with a real measure of contempt, "is part of the machinery of established power, and it is often unjust and will punish those whom that power hates or fears."

It is probably safe to say that the playwright counts on having an audience on hand that is able to fill in the context for Kunstler's stories through their own memories of those glory years. Back then, there was a widespread belief in the power of the people to bring about changes through protest marches and acts of civil disobedience. The evidence was clear: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the end to the war in Vietnam; the end to Lyndon Johnson's presidential career, and later, to Richard Nixon's.

Eventually, however, the play takes a turn as it looks beyond these triumphs of a certain time in history, and the playwright nudges us into some sober reflection on the fact that history did not end with these milestones. Through the eyes of a second character, an African American law student named Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley), we begin to understand why Kunstler's presence on campus three decades later has drawn vigorous protests, and also how the tide of history has been taking us in a different direction. (There's even an oblique reference to Donald Trump, though he is not mentioned by name.)

Kerry's voice is that of a younger generation. She is there only by virtue of the fact that she is vice chair of the program committee and has an obligation to host the event; otherwise, she'd be outside with the protesters. While she tries to be politely efficient, it is clear that she is not taken in by Kunstler's self-aggrandizement or the presumptiveness of white male privilege (at one point, he hugs a female audience member after affirming her male companion's "permission;" Kerry, though, makes it clear that he'd best not approach her in that same effusive way). She also holds him accountable for some of the court cases he neglected to mention, such as his high profile defense of mob boss John Gotti. For Kerry and for many of her fellow students, Kunstler is a fallen idol and a relic of another time and place. The future is in their hands.

Under Meagen Fay's direction, the production is a lively exploration of the celebrated lawyer, who is making what would turn out to be a final victory lap not long before his death. Jeff McCarthy, who has played the title role before, seems to be having a fine old time as Kunstler as he struts about the stage, punctuating his remarks with jokes ("What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 70? Answer: Your honor"), and taking jabs at his old enemies, like the nefarious Roy Cohn, whom he always mentions while indicating devil's horns above his head. And even though McCarthy's Kunstler seems to be in good health, there are a couple of points in the play where you get a sense that the old ticker ain't quite what it used to be.

It's these more subtle elements that elevate and give depth to the proceedings and make it a worthy evening of theater, whether you are a Baby Boomer, a Gen X-er or a Millennial. If you miss some of the specific references, you can always ask your parents or grandparents.

Through March 12
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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