As much as we Americans may say we understand that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, we don’t really mean it. We may be aware that every man accused of a crime is entitled to have his day in court, before a jury of his peers. But, we don’t really mean that, either. Why? Because nothing seems to piss people off quite so much as when a lawyer steps forward to represent an unpopular defendant. A cop-killer? A war protester? A terrorist? With the weight of the entire legal establishment already arrayed against the accused, we have already decided upon their guilt; how dare someone actually take their side in a court of law?
For most of his professional life that unforgiveable role was claimed by the late William M. Kunstler, proud “card-carrying” ACLU member, civil-rights activist and self-proclaimed “radical lawyer,” who devoted his career to representing unpopular activist political causes in the courtroom, and who cemented his notoriety by offering robust defenses, which often proved successful. Over time, he represented the Chicago 7, the Weather Underground, the Attica Prison rioters, “the blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, Colin Ferguson, Larry Davis, Yousef Salaam (of the Central Park 5), and John Gotti, among many other similarly unsympathetic defendants.
Kunstler was to become quite famous, and was such a polarizing figure during his lifetime most people either hated him or admired him; few were indifferent. Chances are if you hated him, you aren’t likely to wind up at a performance of Jeffrey Sweet’s excellent play, KUNSTLER. That’s a shame, really, because it would deprive this production of the resultant, if un-sought, congratulatory whiff that comes along with preaching to the choir. Well, so be it. I was quite happy to count myself among the choir’s number while KUNSTLER was in session at the Sgouros Theatre on MacDougal Street in the West Village, where it is playing as part of the FringeNYC Festival under the capable direction of Meagan Fay. In the process, I managed to learn quite a bit more about Mr. Kunstler than I knew going in, and I imagine that a younger generation is learning about him for the first time, thanks to Jeffrey Sweet’s smart two-hand script and a superb cast.
Nick Wyman is excellent in the title role; and if he isn’t channeling the late William Kunstler then we ought to come up with another definition of channeling. Mr. Wyman is a bright, articulate and engaging performer, very quick with a phrase, and while this play asks him to carry the whole lot squarely on his shoulders, Mr. Wyman never seems to sweat the weight for a second. The performance is as graceful as it is seemingly devoid of obvious pressure; Nick Wyman is in complete control of the room, the pacing and flow of words, the deluge of ideas and incident, which comprise the hour and a half running time of KUNSTLER. Wyman’s bravura, operatic performance is anchored throughout by the nearly silent, clearly hostile Gillian Glasco; she plays Kerry, the reluctant law student tapped by the Law School to welcome and introduce Kunstler to his campus audience, and since she is sharing the stage with him, Kunstler enlists her grudging aid from time to time. Director Fay has marshaled the Spartan trappings of the “onstage” setting to the play’s advantage, but more importantly, focused her chief energies on the main character’s need for attention, which results in a riveting performance by Nick Wyman. Mr. Sweet’s ample skills as a writer are evident throughout the evening, but never more lucidly so than when he has Mr. Kunstler explain the perfect legality of killing by execution. At that chilling moment, it became crystal clear to me why the world desperately needs William Kunstler, and many others like him. We are talking now about defendants like Socrates and Jesus; how dare someone actually take their side in a court of law?
I hope there is a producer or two out there smart enough to realize that KUNSTLER should have a future life, if not Off-Broadway where it can find the larger audience it deserves, then at least on the road to America’s colleges, where it should be required viewing at every law school.
Kunstler, Written by Jeffrey Sweet. Directed by Meagen Fay, featuring Gillian Glasco (Kerry) and Nick Wyman (William Kunstler). Stage Manager, Kian Ross. Sound Design, Craig J. Lenti, Lighting Design, Marie Yokoyama. Produced by Artistic New Directions, Janice L. Goldberg and Kristine Niven, Artistic Co-Directors. Part of FringeNYC at The Steve & Marie Sgouros Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, New York, NY. Through August 23, 2014.