‘Kunstler’: Conscience on Trial
By Beatrice Williams-Rude
Quick! Don’t dally!! Race to get tickets for Kunstler, the splendid play by Jeffrey Sweet featuring a dazzling, the-sky’s-the-limit performance by Jeff McCarthy as the larger-than-life lawyer seen by many as the defender of the faith–faith in the Constitution.
Jeff McCarthy turns the icon, William Moses Kunstler, into a flesh and blood human being with warmth, humor and passion. The work is inventively and most effectively directed by Meagen Fay, who utilizes the aisles in the theater as part of the set. The venue is a college auditorium where Kunstler is to speak amid protests outside the building and a hanged effigy within labeled “traitor.” Greeting him coolly but politely is Kerry, the student organizer of the event, nicely played by Nambi E. Kelley.
The author has the protagonist walk us through some of his most important cases: the Catonsville 9, among whose number were the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip and whose “crime” was destroying government property in their mission to stop the Vietnam horror. The “property”? The draft records of many young men. He defended the Chicago Seven, activist opponents of US Vietnam policy.
Jeff McCarthy’s takes on Roy Cohn, a friend during their college days, were hilarious. He showed Cohn with devil’s horns. Similarly, his impersonations of Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Judge Hoffman drew guffaws. He turned our darkest history into black comedy replete with lawyers’ jokes. “What do you call a good lawyer gone bad?” “Senator.” “What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 70?” “Your honor.”
Jeffrey Sweet is not afraid to name names. He notes Nelson Rockefeller’s ignominious role in the Attica Prison riots. He shows FBI collusion with the prosecution in the Wounded Knee case. Sweet has Kunstler explaining his refusal to put process over people and offering a riveting catalog of injustices perpetrated in the name of the law including Socrates’ trial, defendants in the Haymarket riots, Sacco and Vanzetti and the massive crimes of the Third Reich. In each, the legal process was correct although the laws should never have been enacted.
The fictional character of Kerry, is the author’s device for getting the protagonist to unburden himself and also to call attention to his warts, which in one case, a defendant in the Central Park jogger case, turns out to be a beauty mark rather than a wart, as years after the fact DNA tests proved the client’s innocence. The matter of John Gotti, however, can indeed be seen as a blemish on a heroic career.
Given the significance of so many of Kunstler’s cases and monumental obstacles presented by establishment, this work could easily have become a shrill screed. But thanks to the skill of the author and the charm of the actor it’s a fascinating theater experience, as well as being educational.
On a personal note vis-à-vis the case of Tyrone the cat: I was in the chorus of two shows with a girl who was dating Bill Kunstler. Lynn was extraordinarily pretty, had an acerbic wit, and a cat with which she refused to be separated. She took the loudly meowing Siamese to rehearsals but the creature was banished to the dressing room because of the noise. I wondered at the time about the remarkable patience of the gentleman friend who would put up with the feisty feline.
Producers include The Creative Place International, Patricia B. Snyder, Kristine Niven and William F. Snyder.
Set designer is James J. Fenton; costumes by Elivia Bovenzi; original music and sound by Will Severin; lighting by Betsy Adams.
There will be talkbacks after several performances:
February 28 – Ronald L. Kuby, Esq., former intern and informal partner in William Kunstler’s Firm.
March 2 – Elizabeth McAlister Berrigan, widow of Philip Berrigan. She and the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip were incarcerated for their actions of peaceful protest against the Vietnam War at Catonsville and Harrisburg.
March 7 – Sarah and Emily Kunstler, daughters of William Kunstler and co-founders of Off Center Media, a production company that produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system.
March 9 – Vincent Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights.
Kunstler is at 59E59 Theaters (between Madison and Park Aves.). from Feb. 23 through March 12. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.
Photos by Heidi Bohnenkamp