There are personalities so big that no matter the profession, the grand stage just follows them around. Some of them do something huge with the bare minimum, they themselves make it special. Others use opportunities to create amazing things with already amazing products, but they themselves stand out from the crowd. Then there are the people like William Kunstler, people that used their enormous presence to help their community, who are selfless. And I’m not saying the man was a saint, but he is one of the few that used his gift to bring justice for those who weren’t getting it. One of the most complex individuals from the civil rights era, Mr. Kunstler’s life is full of cases that changed the way people are treated currently in this country. Such an interesting subject is the one being explored by playwright Jeffrey Sweet on his appropriately named work “Kunstler,” running at the 59E59 Theaters.
Directed by Meagen Fay, the show sets up to study Kunstler as both a hero and a villain through the eyes of an audience and the sounds of a protest. Fay does a fine job showing us the impact the man had, but failed to capitalize on the man himself, performed bravely by Jeff McCarthy. The show’s mix of one man show structure and two character play works well for it, but ultimately becomes a hindrance on the overall production. McCarthy does the best he can with a subpar script, taking the role and giving it life with every little gesture he adds to the repertoire, every tone change we can hear in his voice, and with every question he asks. He truly elevated some of the dullest moments in the show by having the same big presence Kunstler himself had.
Calling the script subpar might be a little harsh, as it is a well-written piece. The pacing and structure, on the other hand, betrays it. The main issue was described in the script itself when Kerry (Nambi E. Kelley) mentioned how the whole thing played out like a “greatest hits” of his cases. It did!
The best moments in the play happen when these two characters interacted. This is an issue because halfway through, Kerry becomes more of a prop than a character, with the script referencing to her as if to make sure we didn’t forget she existed. Yet, when we reached the last minutes of the production and their interaction becomes the focus, the play improved tremendously. Not to say it didn’t work before, but there was a sense of restlessness from the audience as the show went through his famous cases without exploring the man as much.
“Kunstler” provides us with a marvelous performance in a show in which the flaws take some points, but do not take away the enjoyment. This will be a nostalgia trip for some, for others an education, but for most it will be a good production they would be happy to attend. It was close to being a great one.
Out of 4 stars:
Twisted Talk: Are you familiar with William Kunstler? Have you attended any shows at 59E59 Theaters? Discuss below!